Politics & Policy

Memories of Paul Laxalt, Conservative Champion

Sen. Paul Laxalt (third from left) with President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at a White House barbecue in 1983. (National Archives)
Politics needs more people like Laxalt, who selflessly serve but don’t forfeit their best selves along the way.

Many encomiums should be written in coming days about former U.S. senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada, known as “Ronald Reagan’s best friend in politics,” who died Monday at age 96. Laxalt’s signal service to conservatism and country has for years been too little credited, but we can hope the credit now will roll in.

Laxalt, governor of neighboring Nevada while Reagan was governor of California, was liked and trusted entirely by both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Serving three times as chairman of Reagan’s presidential campaigns, for years as general chairman of the Republican National Committee, and as a stalwart conservative senator known for integrity, decency, and quiet effectiveness, Laxalt played key roles in implementing the Reagan agenda. Perhaps his greatest single triumph came when he personally persuaded Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos to abdicate in the face of (justifiable) civil unrest, rather than trigger a bloodbath that might have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands.

Even Ted Kennedy called Marcos’s Laxalt-engineered exit “an extraordinary day in the history of human freedom.”

Thousands of people, of course, could tell good Laxalt stories — but, to see firsthand how he operated near the pinnacle of presidential politics, please allow two of my own vivid remembrances of this admirably principled man.

The first came in 1980, at the Republican National Convention at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. I was a 16-year-old page at the convention, running messages for convention organizers while snapping as many photos of political celebrities as I could. The page “holding room” was just off a VIP-only hallway of sorts that ran underneath and behind the convention podium — a hallway whose roped-off entrance was about 15 yards away from a VIP-only back entrance to the arena from the street outside.

Not many people remember just how dramatic it was at that convention when word got out that Reagan and former president Gerald Ford were in discussions about Ford becoming Reagan’s running mate. The very idea of a former president running as veep was astonishing, and the media was in a frenzy.

I was standing just inside the VIP entrance — loitering, really — when in walked Laxalt and a convention official. One lone TV reporter and cameraman happened to be there, standing next to me, and, recognizing Laxalt, the reporter said something like, “Senator, senator, so tell us how this Ford thing came about, and how is it going to work?”

Laxalt was clearly unhappy. Through fiercely clenched teeth, he said, “No, it’s not Ford; it’s Bush.”

Suddenly, as if from nowhere, a mob of reporters was surrounding us and jostling us. This appeared to be the very first word, from anybody, that the Ford deal had fallen through and that George H. W. Bush would be Reagan’s choice. The reporters present obviously didn’t believe it: After all, Ford himself had confirmed to Walter Cronkite just an hour or so earlier that the Reagan-Ford ticket looked likely.

Several reporters, yelling, challenged him: “We know it’s Ford; why do you say it’s Bush when we know it’s Ford?”

“No,” Laxalt insisted, furiously. “It’s Bush. I tell you, it’s Bush.”

Thirty-eight years later, people forget just how strongly some of those in Reagan’s inner circle disliked the elder Bush’s politics. Laxalt was one of them. He had worked for five years to get the GOP nomination for Reagan, the insurgent, and now was crushed to see an East Coast son of privilege join the ticket.

With a media scrum pushing and shoving to get microphones close to Laxalt, a security guard thought it best to intervene. He used his arms to cordon off Laxalt, the aide — and, for some reason, me — and usher us to the VIP hallway, away from the tumult. Not knowing what else to do, I fell into step beside Laxalt and the aide, as the senator quietly fumed.

About 30 yards down the hallway, Laxalt looked over at me, clearly wondering who the heck I was and why I was there. He looked like a man about to erupt, with his face signaling, before he could even get the words out, that he didn’t want a stranger around.

But Laxalt then noticed my page ID and collected himself. Ever so courteously, even while still somewhat clenching his teeth, he said, “Thank you, young man; I don’t need you for anything right now, but I appreciate your being here. Thank you very much.”

He and his aide walked off.

Over the ensuing years, the stories accumulated about how furious Laxalt had been; indeed, he and his wife had left the convention entirely, that very night, rather than stay around for Reagan officially to accept the nomination the next evening. (He was soon back in the fold, telling the world that a Reagan-Bush ticket would be a winner.)

As for me, I didn’t quite understand why Laxalt was so upset at the prospect of Bush as veep, but I was struck by his attempt to collect himself and send me off kindly rather than snappishly.

As I was to learn in subsequent years as a close Capitol Hill watcher, that was just Laxalt’s way. Called by some “the nicest man in Washington,” Laxalt pulled off the rare feat of being genuinely liked and trusted by both Jesse Helms and Ted Kennedy — and so valued was he by Reagan and Nancy that Laxalt was dubbed the presidential “First Friend.”

In 1987, Laxalt was ramping up a presidential run of his own (for 1988, when Reagan’s presidency was term-limited). In my home state of Louisiana, each of Reagan’s eight congressional-district campaign chairmen from 1980, including my father, decided to join Laxalt en masse. (Dad was a conservative movement veteran who had attended the seminal Sharon Conference at the Buckley estate in 1960.)

The Nevadan traveled to Lafayette, with one aide in tow, to meet with the eight in a seafood restaurant’s private dining room. My dad brought me, then a full-time staffer for the gubernatorial campaign of U.S. representative Bob Livingston, in case I might want to do nuts-and-bolts work for Laxalt rather than Jack Kemp once the Livingston campaign was over.

Called by some ‘the nicest man in Washington,’ Paul Laxalt pulled off the rare feat of being genuinely liked and trusted by both Jesse Helms and Ted Kennedy — and so valued was he by Reagan and Nancy that Laxalt was dubbed the presidential ‘First Friend.’

Laxalt wore a conservative business suit, but (as I remember) sans tie. I was struck by how approachable he was — how few airs, how down-to-earth. Indeed, he was perhaps a bit too comfortable in his own skin: He pulled up a second restaurant chair and, sitting back in his own chair, propped his feet up on the second one while listening to our questions and giving thoughtful answers. On those feet of his, even in his business suit, was the most impressive pair of cowboy boots I’ve ever seen.

Laxalt spoke very matter-of-factly, sometimes even irreverently, about the politics of his intended race. He knew Vice President Bush was the establishment choice, and Kemp had “movement” supply-siders, and Pat Robertson was revving up the Christian Right, and Bob Dole was getting much better organized than Dole had been in 1980. Laxalt said he himself wasn’t representing any niche; he just wanted to be a unifying person for the whole party to continue “Ron’s legacy.”

He sat with us through a long meal and for well over an hour after, conversing rather than pontificating, listening almost as often as he spoke. The overwhelming impression was that he was a good and decent human being, one who would make thoughtful and wise (and conservative) decisions, and without much ego, much less id.

But as my father and I later took our late-night, 150-minute drive back to New Orleans, I remember us telling each other that Laxalt seemed to lack fire. His brain was engaged, but his “gut” — and, with it, his ability to inspire an energetic following — appeared dormant.

Sure enough, about a month later, still more than five months before the Iowa caucuses, he withdrew from the presidential race. He said he had failed to raise the money to be competitive. Maybe so, but the truth was simpler: If he failed to raise the money, it was because his ego and heart weren’t fully engaged. He later said his brief presidential campaign represented “the four most miserable months of my life.”

The reality was that although Laxalt had perhaps the right stuff to serve as president, he didn’t have “what it takes” (the title of Richard Ben Cramer’s classic account of the 1988 presidential race) to run for the office.

Politics needs more people like that: people who selflessly serve, but don’t forfeit their best selves along the way, and who recognize that the brass ring may not be meant to be theirs.

The son of an immigrant shepherd, a veteran of fierce combat at Leyte Gulf, an official who stood by his friend Ronald Reagan through thick and thin, a wise and decent governor and senator, Paul Laxalt was one of the great public servants of our lifetimes. America was lucky he walked with us when and how he did.

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