After reading about Sen. John Ensign and now-former Assemblyman Morse Arberry, I’d rather talk about Ralph Denton. You’ll see why.
For newshounds, Ensign is the gift that keeps giving. A recent New Yorker article on the C Street house where he and some fellow hypocrites live, called “Frat House for Jesus,” detailed how they dealt with discovering that Ensign regards the Ten Commandments as highly as he does the 10 amendments comprising the Bill of Rights. The New York Times mentioned the Republican in an article about members of Congress whose charities get considerable financial help from companies and industries with business before them.
Meanwhile, Ensign toured rural Nevada, claiming Democrats caused the recession, not only being dishonest but showing that his recent infamy did nothing to reduce his hubris or his hairspray use.
Showing bipartisan spirit by diverting attention from Ensign, Arberry, whose Democratic registration must thrill the party, resigned from the Assembly seat he had to surrender anyway due to term limits to make himself eligible for a lobbying contract from Clark County. Commentators wondered whether he has any shame (no), begging the question of why the members of the district that elected him had no standards. At least the county commission did: It rejected him.
With all of that going on, we went to a brunch for Denton’s 85th birthday. A few years ago, I did the interviews and editing for his oral history, and not merely because he is, next to my father, the finest man I know, or because he’s a good friend.
Denton knows Nevada history and has lived it. He has practiced law in Nevada since 1951 after going through school on the patronage of the congressional delegation, most notably Sen. Pat McCarran. He ran twice for Congress and has been involved in numerous campaigns.
Denton was one of the key people responsible for Grant Sawyer’s winning two terms as governor in 1958 and 1962. More than any governor with the possible exception of Mike O’Callaghan (1971-79), Sawyer dragged Nevada kicking and screaming into the 20th century by supporting stronger gaming regulation, civil rights, stronger social services and more streamlined state government.
When a vacancy opened on the county commission, Sawyer and Denton discussed those seeking the appointment. Finally, Sawyer said, “Everybody in Clark County’s on my tail. The only person I could appoint that everybody would say, ‘Well, he’s entitled to it,’ is you.” So Denton took it but didn’t run for a full term. Why? “I was constantly hit with conflicts of interest,” he said, and he felt he couldn’t do justice to the public while also maintaining a law practice with clients who might have business before him. Later Sawyer said, “All those years, there was never one thing you ever did in my name that embarrassed me.”
We carefully chose the title for Denton’s oral history: A Liberal Conscience. We meant it two ways: He’s a conscience among Nevada’s liberal community, and he’s a liberal with a conscience. Interestingly, when the book came out, some of his old friends declined to get it because the title was evil. Unlike them, apparently, Denton finds it possible to talk with people he disagrees with.
That isn’t to suggest perfection on Denton’s part—he doesn’t. But during Sawyer’s tenure as governor, he was amazed to find so many trying to hire him as a lawyer because they expected him to use his connection to Sawyer or help them because he held office. He asked one, “Do you think I’m a political whore? I’m not a political whore; I’m a lawyer.” To which a friend said, “Are you crazy? Grab it while you can.”
For Ensign and Arberry to grab it while they can—in one case literally—is a common human reaction. If we were perfect, laws would be unnecessary.
Officeholders need a conscience, either inside their heads or in the form of a friend to tell them when they’re wrong. One night, Sawyer was upset when Denton disagreed with him, but then said, “Don’t change. I’ve got enough yes-men around me now.” Sawyer had plenty of conscience, not to mention intelligence, but he benefited from the give-and-take.
Ensign and Arberry could learn from Denton about what to give and what to take—and in what order to do it.
Michael Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and author of several books and articles on Nevada history and politics.