A Tale of Two Adelsons

Unrelated icons show changing dynamic between gaming and politics

Sheldon Adelson and the late Merv Adelson.

Sheldon Adelson and the late Merv Adelson.

A pair of Adelsons recently made news, reminding us of how Nevada’s political status and stature have changed through time.

The day after Merv Adelson died, New York magazine ran a 6,000-plus-word article with the inviting headline, “Sheldon Adelson Is Ready to Buy the Presidency.” The two Adelsons weren’t related, but their stories, and magazine articles about them, are.

Merv Adelson founded Paradise Development in the 1950s with Moe Dalitz, Allard Roen and Irwin Molasky. They built or operated a lot of Las Vegas. Dalitz and Roen were among the Desert Inn’s co-owners, but Paradise Development built or ran Sunrise Hospital, the Boulevard Mall, the Las Vegas Country Club, Commercial Center, Nathan Adelson Hospice (named after Merv’s father), housing tracts and office buildings, as well as the La Costa Resort and Spa in Southern California. Molasky and Adelson helped start Lorimar in 1969, the production company behind shows such as The Waltons and Dallas.

They also wound up suing Penthouse for libel. In March 1975, the magazine published “La Costa: The $100 Million Resort With the Criminal Clientele,” linking the spa and its builders to organized crime through its visitors and the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund loan that had helped build it. The foursome sued for libel—$522 million worth. After a 5-month trial in 1982, a jury cleared Penthouse.

During the ’70s, the FBI sent Joe Yablonsky to run its Nevada operations, and he targeted Dalitz, his friends, and various politicians and judges. One of his least favorite people, Senator Paul Laxalt, R-Nevada, also was the “First Friend” to Ronald Reagan. Laxalt tried to persuade the Reagan administration to send Yablonsky from Nevada to, well, anywhere else, preferably near Mars.

Asked how he could take political funds from a presumed mobster, Laxalt replied, “For a Nevada politician to refuse a contribution from Moe Dalitz would be like running for office in Michigan and turning down a contribution from General Motors.” Some in the outside world found that mind-boggling. By Nevada standards, for good or ill, it made perfect sense—besides, Dalitz never needed a federal financial bailout to survive. But Laxalt’s family received a Teamsters loan to rebuild the Ormsby House in Carson City, prompting a Sacramento Bee report on skimming and Laxalt to sue the Bee for libel.

All of which is why Senator Pat McCarran, D-Nevada, once told one of the students attending law school on his patronage that no Nevadan could hope to be president: Those living in the state were guilty by association with an industry viewed as an adjunct of organized crime.

But times have changed. Governor Brian Sandoval’s name has popped up as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate (don’t bet on it). Former Senator John Ensign, R-Nevada, apparently thought about going for the White House until going for his chief of staff’s wife derailed his career. Then New York made clear that Nevada can do even better: Rather than electing a president who’s from here, someone from here could choose the president.

That may overstate Sheldon Adelson’s power. He certainly has money and spent about $100 million in 2012 to defeat Barack Obama, and look where it got him. Few of the candidates he has backed have been winners. But as the article shows, he has affected how Republican politicians respond to some issues, especially involving Israel (not necessarily the recent Iran deal; the fact that Obama supported it made certain that they would oppose it). Yet the article suggests that money has bought him less respect than he might prefer.

For a presidential candidate to supplicate to a casino mogul such as Sheldon Adelson as recently as in Merv Adelson’s time in Las Vegas would have been unthinkable. Gaming has become respectable enough to be legal in some form in 48 states, and multinational corporations control a large percentage of it.

Yet New York subtly, perhaps unintentionally, showed how some things haven’t changed. Those who read it undoubtedly have noticed the great illustration that ran with it: It shows a man kissing Adelson’s ring. The blinds behind him and Adelson’s tuxedo are reminiscent of the opening scenes of a film in which men bowed to another titan: Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather. Now, if Adelson were as powerful as he was …

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.

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