Watergate Permanently Affected Our Nation’s Politics—and Nevada’s

FBI Director James Comey deserved to be fired. Unfortunately for our republic, it happened for the wrong reasons, and Nevada politicians would be well advised to be mindful of how it unfolds.

Comey cultivated an image of independence, beginning when he prevented colleagues in George W. Bush’s administration from getting a hospitalized and medicated Attorney General John Ashcroft to approve continuing warrantless domestic surveillance. He maintained that stance last year when he said Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be prosecuted over emails, then attacked her handling of government documents, then announced the reopened investigation 11 days before an election whose outcome he changed.

Then Comey screwed up on how many emails were involved and who was involved when he testified before Congress on May 8, so the Trump administration sacked him. But only the unflinchingly naïve think that was the real reason. Testimony by Comey, former director of national intelligence James Clapper and former acting attorney general—turned—savior of the rule of law Sally Yates made clear that either Trump and his allies lied about connections to Russia—or they can’t tell the difference between up and down. Since Comey’s actions suggested a possible criminal investigation, it’s hard not to see this as an effort to stop the bleeding.

So, what does Nevada have to do with it?

The immediate historical comparison is Watergate, which connects to Nevada. Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign wiretapped phones at Democratic Party headquarters. James McCord, one of those arrested while breaking into those offices, later told Congress they also targeted the Las Vegas Sun and, specifically, a safe in publisher Hank Greenspun’s office that contained memos from Howard Hughes. Hughes had loaned money to Nixon’s brother and given money under the table to several candidates, including Nixon. The national Democratic Party chair, Larry O’Brien, had worked for Hughes. By 1972, Greenspun, who once said he “prostituted my newspaper in Hughes’ interest,” had broken with the billionaire and wound up in a lawsuit against him.

Not that this road involving Comey also leads through Las Vegas, but the Trump family’s constant grifting on behalf of their business interests has a 64-story connection to the Strip. What Trump does around the world, not as president but as a developer, links back to his property here.

They say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Nixon had an attorney general with no conception of the Constitution, interfered with the FBI and fired a special prosecutor investigating him. Eventually, he resigned rather than be convicted and removed from office in an impeachment trial. The result was a GOP bloodbath in the 1974 midterms. Democrats, already the majority, gained 49 seats in the House and four in the Senate.

But Democrats might want to confer with that retired senator who could have reached Washington two terms earlier…

Naturally, though, Nevada was different. Democratic senator Alan Bible retired after 20 years. Every expert thought Gov. Mike O’Callaghan would run, but he didn’t. Instead, the Democratic nominee was his lieutenant governor, a young fellow named Harry Reid. Reid will tell you he blew that election: His opponent was a popular, smart politician, whose family Reid foolishly attacked. The Republican won the Senate seat by 611 votes.

That Republican was Paul Laxalt. His grandson, Nevada’s attorney general, plans to run for governor in 2018. Adam Laxalt is holding a Washington, D.C., fund-raiser for that race, and has piqued the state legislature’s interest after the Gaming Control Board chairman was concerned enough to record a conversation with him about his biggest political supporter, Sheldon Adelson.

In theory, Adam Laxalt and incumbent Republican senator Dean Heller should be in deep political trouble in 2018. It’s hard enough for the party in power to do well in midterm elections. By then, for all we know, it may come out that Trump traded the U.S. to Russia for a golf course and two plutocrats to be named later. Women and Hispanics energized in 2016 by a female Democratic nominee and talk of border walls show no sign of retreating into apolitical cocoons, especially when the president keeps issuing executive orders against immigration and the Senate GOP committee writing a (lack of) healthcare bill includes no women, since women don’t have health issues.

Whether Nevada will buck what seem to be the trends for 2018, as it did in the 1974 Senate race, is hard to say. In politics, a minute is a lifetime. But Democrats might want to consult with that retired senator who could have reached Washington two terms earlier, or even consider taking some positions and using logic. Granted, for Democrats, that’s a lot to ask—but maybe not too much to hope for.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.