Pretty Paul Laxalt: nuking Nevada for fun & profit


You can't know where you're going unless you know where you've been. If Nevada's going to get nuked again, we should remember how we got where we are. And who to blame.

At first blush, the Silver State seems the logical choice for nuclear wastebasket. Don't we already have thousands of square miles nuked and polluted with just about every kind of high-tech killing device known to mankind? Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) would have you believe so. Last week during floor debate, he asserted that Yucca Mountain (the proposed "permanent" nuke storage site) lies in the same general geographic area as the Nevada (nuclear) Test Site, the proposed "temporary" place to park the dark produce of the nuclear utility industry.

Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Nev.) quickly corrected Mr. Murkowski's dissembling, noting that the mountain and test site are separate. Perhaps we can never overcome the test site mushroom cloud image. Back in the 1950's, the war department made loving our nukes a patriotic duty. Not long before he died, former Republican Gov. Charles Russell (an honest man and my pick as best of the century), said that all Nevada officials could do was accept the feds at their word. Our government wouldn't do anything to hurt us, would it?

Only decades later did we find out about some gruesome experiments conducted by our own military types, including sprinkling radiation all over the west coast to see how far the winds would carry it. Actors John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Agnes Moorehead all fell to cancer, probably from the misfortune of being downwind of Nevada nuke tests while filming in Utah. The federal government still fights the health-related claims filed by downwind citizens, ex-soldiers, test site workers and their survivors.

Nuke testing simply set the stage for nuke dumping, but Nevada did not have to inherit the ill wind. The voters blew it years before nuclear waste became a national issue.

In 1974, Paul Laxalt was going broke running the still-troubled Ormsby House Hotel-Casino in Carson City. He found out the hard way that his true calling was as a candidate, not as a businessman. Holding high office usually benefits one's business, so pretty Paul put everything on the line in the year of Watergate. While Republicans all over the nation dropped like flies, Nevada produced two remarkable exceptions. Laxalt was elected to the U.S. Senate and Robert List was re-elected attorney general over then-state Sen. Richard Bryan (D-Las Vegas).

(Both results would come back to haunt us. In 1978, the gambling-industrial complex anointed List its candidate for governor. In 1981, he produced the infamous tax shaft, shifting local government and education funding from stable property taxes toward undependable sales taxes. It also moved a lot more power to Carson City. If you want somebody to blame for starting Reno on the path toward potholes, Robert List is my pick to click. UPDATE 2002: Mr. List, now a private attorney, accepted a lucrative contract to help pro-dumpsite interests in 2001.)

On that fateful 1974 November night, former Gov. Laxalt edged then-Lt. Gov. Harry Reid, who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by unnecessarily attacking. Despite a big lead in the polls, Reid chose to question Laxalt's Ormsby House financing. As history would prove, there were a lot of embarrassing questions to ask. Laxalt's spinmeisters termed Reid's questions a personal attack on Laxalt's family, including his sister, a Carmelite nun.

Reid was advised against the strategy by his good friend Jim Bilbray. "I told Harry it would bounce wrong off the north," Bilbray told me after the election. Reid instead followed the advice of his campaign manager, Don Williams, who had run Bilbray's 1972 statewide campaign for congress into the ground. Laxalt listened to Carson City crony Ed Allison and successfully diverted attention from the questionable characters associated with the casino financing to the hurt feelings of the Carmelite nun. Laxalt beat Reid by 611 votes after a recount and the silver-haired one's dynasty was born. (Old pols still quip that Paul may not have been the smartest of the Laxalt brothers, but he was damn sure the prettiest.)

In 1980, former State. Sen. Mary Gojack (D-Washoe) ran against Laxalt. Underfunded in the year of the coronation of King Ronald of Unholywood, she lost but really pissed off pretty Paul in the process. In 1982, Nevada was given two congressional seats for the first time. When Gojack decided to run, Laxalt went ballistic. That woman was not going to serve with him in congress.

The senator funded the campaign of his longtime office manager, Barbara Vucanovich. He also worked to elect former state Sen. Chic Hecht (R-Las Vegas) to the U.S. Senate, giving himself a chance to settle two old scores at once. Sen. Howard Cannon (D-Nev.), had handed Laxalt what would turn out to be the only defeat of his life in 1964. Cannon lost to Laxalt by 84 votes on election night but beat Laxalt by 48 votes after a recount.

Speaking to a Las Vegas service club earlier this year, Cannon said he sees no hope for Nevada to avoid becoming the world's nuclear garbage can. (Foreign waste is part of the plan.) Had he been re-elected to a fifth term 15 years ago, Cannon said, he could have stopped that nuke train in its tracks.

The 1982 election of Hecht and Vucanovich provided the dump's critical mass, with Paul Laxalt presiding as high priest. Like all pro politicians, Laxalt promoted the image of working for his constituents. His rep in DC was far different. Paul took care of Paul.

In 1983, he ordered Hecht and Vucanovich to adopt a "wait and see" atttitude on the dumpsite. DC interpreted this to mean that Nevada public opinion was divided. Only newly-elected Rep. Harry Reid (D-Las Vegas) voiced opposition. The radioactive freight train started rolling west.

Vucanovich went undefeated for seven elections, despite having it both ways on nuke dumping. She swore her opposition, but in 1991 admitted on tape to favoring "temporary" nuclear storage in her district, essentially the bill before the U.S. Senate today. KRNV TV-4's Victoria Campbell broke the story. I printed verbatim transcripts in this newspaper on June 23 and 24, 1991. No other media picked up the scoop.

Last Friday morning, I hooted when I saw the Reno Gazette-Journal's editorial chastising Vucanovich's replacement, freshman Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.). Last week, Gibbons and Rep. John Ensign (R-Las Vegas), criticized Sens. Reid and Bryan for their tactics fighting the dump in the upper chamber. "Former Republican Rep. Barbara Vucanovich never split the delegation like Gibbons and Ensign are doing," the Reno paper said. "She had better sense." Oh, really?

Reid and Laxalt campaign managers Don Williams and Ed Allison ended up on the same side, pimping the nuclear utility industry for fun and profit. In 1991, both took fat fees to go to work for an industry propaganda front called the American Nuclear Energy Council. Their job: make Nevadans stop worrying and love the dump, all paid for as tax-deductible PR expenses.

A controversial mining deal involving his old friend Williams contributed to Rep. Bilbray's (D-Las Vegas) upset defeat by Ensign in 1994. (In 1987, Bilbray replaced Reid, who replaced Sen. Laxalt. We're still a small town.)

Ensign will try to replace Reid next year, just as Reid's seniority begins to count. Gibbons wants Bryan's senate seat in 2000. And so they play politics with nukes while Nevadans quake in their boots.

Howard Cannon is probably right, that train's a'comin'. Only alliances with the many states worried about transportation safety can derail it.

Paul Laxalt left the senate to become a millionaire fatcat Washington lawyer-lobbyist, a financial heavyweight at long last. Alas and alack, silver-haired Paul will go down in history as the man who made the Silver State of his birth a radioactive sewer on behalf of corporate welfare recipients.

Drop and roll.

Be well. Raise hell.

UPDATE — 2002 Barbwire bonus

Las Vegas Sun columnist Ralston blames Democrats for Nevada nuke dump

Newspaper prints Barbano's response setting the record straight
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Copyright © 1991, 1997, 2002, 2006, 2010 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 28-year Nevadan. In 1984, he was the Democratic nominee for Nevada's statewide second congressional district seat.
Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks Tribune since 1988.

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