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Basques, Babies, and More

Reagan and Laxalt at the White House in 1986 (National Archives)

In Part II of my “Elko Journal,” I talk a bit about the Basques. So, on my first morning in town, I’m walking down the main drag of Elko and see a Basque restaurant. My first thought is, “What the …?” My second is, “Oh, right: Nevada. Paul Laxalt.”

He was governor of Nevada and then, for two terms, a U.S. senator. He was also known as Ronald Reagan’s best friend in politics, or “the First Friend.” In truth, of course, Reagan had one friend, period: his second wife. That was a closed circle. The biographers marvel at this, and seek to explain it.

Anyway, Paul Laxalt was born in 1922, to a sheepherding family. Many Basques herded sheep in Nevada and elsewhere in the West. Some years ago, I wrote about Tony Campos, of Fresno, Calif.: “a veritable almond king.” But “he wasn’t born a king, or prince.” No,

he came to America in 1952 from the Basque country, with nothing. He took a bus from New York to Wyoming, where he would work as a shepherd. Eventually, he and his brothers tended sheep in California. Then they moved into farming, finally hitting on almonds. The Campos brothers did hard, tedious manual labor. Now Tony — the sole remaining brother — has a sprawling, gleaming operation, with equipment that seems out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Back to Paul Laxalt. (Incidentally, many Basque people have an “x” in their name.) When I was coming of age, I was gravitating toward the conservative Republicans, the Reagan Republicans. And I was always told that the GOP was “the party of the rich.” I would sometimes respond that the Republicans were the party of aspiration. Laxalt was the son of an immigrant shepherd. Reagan was the son of an itinerant shoe salesman with a drinking problem. And so on. Meanwhile, many leading Democrats were scions of wealth.

In downtown Elko, by the way, there is a monument to the Basques, a tribute, called “The Watchful Shepherd.”

I’d like to say one more word about the GOP — or rather, give it to Pete Wehner. Earlier this month, he wrote,

I saw in the Republican Party a commitment to human freedom, democratic capitalism, and a traditional social order; to upward mobility through self-reliance; to the dignity of work; to the cultivation of character and respect for the Constitution; and to a foreign policy that placed a high priority on human rights, a strong national defense, and American leadership. Republicans argued for limited government, economic growth, and free trade. The party respected the role of religion in public life and envisioned America as a welcoming society to immigrants and the unborn. It was hardly a perfect party. Like all political institutions, it fell short of its ideals; it was also led by some deeply flawed individuals. Yet in the main, it stood for principles that I believe promote human flourishing.

Hear, hear.

One last comment on Part II of my journal before I get out of here. In Elko, I noticed the name “Tabor” — belonging to a student at Elko High. This made me smile, and wonder. Elko is a gold-mining town. But Nevada is the Silver State. And, in the 19th century, Horace Tabor was the Silver King. In the 20th, he was the subject of an opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, by Douglas Moore. This opera contains the Silver Aria, associated with Beverly Sills, as is that whole role. (To hear Sills sing the aria, go here.)

I’m going to relate something terribly braggy, which makes me an SOB, but what else is new? Some years ago, I gave a lecture at the Salzburg Easter Festival. Afterward, a distinguished American gent came up to me and said, “Reminded me of a music class I had at Columbia with Douglas Moore.”

Enough of my bragging and reminiscing — have a happy day.

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