Paul D. Laxalt, a U.S. senator and close friend of Ronald Reagan’s whose insights aided his presidential campaigns and presidency, died Monday in McLean, Virginia. He was 96.
Laxalt’s family said the death was from natural causes.
As governor of Nevada from 1967-71, Laxalt got to know Reagan when he was the governor of neighboring California, and they worked together to clean up the increasingly polluted Lake Tahoe. When Reagan ran for president in 1976 and 1980, Laxalt was his campaign chairman, and he served as general chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Reagan presidency. In private, he continued to address the president as “Ron.”
As a Republican senator from Nevada from 1975-87, Laxalt was known for a firm conservatism conveyed courteously. When he led the unsuccessful 1978 fight against the treaties turning over the Panama Canal to Panama, for example, he did not insult or ridicule the Panamanians, as many of his allies did.
“How could I, as a French Basque?” he said in a 2006 interview, recalling his understanding of the Panamanian feeling that they were oppressed by a big power. Still, he insisted in 1978: “It’s absolutely essential that we retain the canal for security purposes, or else it might become a Russian choke point.”
Laxalt was born in 1922 in Carson City, Nevada’s capital. His parents were immigrants from the Basque region of France, and his father was a sheepherder, spending months with his flock in the Sierra Nevada, while his mother ran a family-owned hotel renowned for her cooking in Carson City.
After service as a medic in the South Pacific (he called that typical Army wisdom, since he had fainted at the sight of blood), he got a law degree from the University of Denver Law School in 1949 and the next year won election as district attorney for Ormsby County, Nevada. He never lost a case but did not enjoy prosecuting, and stepped down after one term.
He was elected lieutenant governor in 1962. Running for the Senate in 1964 as a supporter of Barry Goldwater and a critic of the federal government, he almost survived that year’s Democratic landslide. He lost to the incumbent, Howard W. Cannon, by 48 votes, but won the governorship two years later.
In that office, he stabilized the state’s gambling industry, then heavily mobbed up. Howard Hughes came into Nevada to own hotel casinos (though Laxalt talked to Hughes only by telephone, never in person). As governor, he also developed a system of community colleges.
In 1974, in another Democratic year, Laxalt was the only Republican to take a Democratic Senate seat.
After Reagan asked the freshman senator to chair his campaign in 1975, Laxalt had the ticklish job of advocating Reagan’s candidacy without attacking President Gerald Ford. He argued that Ford was not a bad president but that Reagan would be better.
In a campaign in which most of the Reagan staff was far younger than the candidate, Laxalt provided encouragement and counsel from his own generation, and urged Reagan to discard his note cards and speak from the heart, the tactic that made him a winner for the first time in the North Carolina primary, the seventh of the 1976 campaign.
Other key bits of advice were for Reagan to work harder at the beginning of the 1980 campaign, to go ahead and debate Jimmy Carter that fall and to suggest Howard Baker as a new chief of staff in 1987.
But perhaps his most important service was a trip to the Philippines in 1985 to warn President Ferdinand Marcos that the United States thought he was losing control. That was followed by a Feb. 25, 1986, telephone conversation that persuaded Marcos to leave office rather than fight a civil war with backers of Corazon Aquino, who had won an election Marcos then stole from her.
“I think we avoided a civil war with one phone call,” Laxalt said in 2006. “The phone call that persuaded him to get the hell out of town really made the difference. A lot of Filipinos would have died there in Manila that day.”
In that same interview, Laxalt called his support of Reagan the “major contribution” he made in public life. “I think the way that finally turned out to have him elected president coming from a clear underdog position gave me the greatest satisfaction.”
After leaving the Senate, Laxalt made a brief try at a presidential candidacy that began and ended in 1987. He later worked in Washington as a lobbyist.
He is survived by his widow, Carol Laxalt, whom he married in 1976; by two brothers, John Laxalt of Las Vegas and Peter Laxalt of Reno, Nevada; and a sister, Susan Laxalt of Las Vegas.
He is also survived by six children from his first marriage to Jackalyn Ross Laxalt, which ended in divorce in 1972. They are Gail Johnson, Sheila Lokan, John Paul Laxalt, Michelle Laxalt, Kevin Laxalt, and Kathleen Laxalt. He is also survived by a daughter from his second marriage, Denise Laxalt; 12 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
Former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., whom Laxalt defeated in 1974 and who succeeded him in 1987, said in 2006, “We have been political adversaries all my adult life, but he and I are friends.” Reid, a former Senate minority leader, said: “His relationship with Ronald Reagan brought a lot of attention and dignity to Nevada. If Ronald Reagan needed honest advice, he went to Paul.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Adam Clymer © 2018 The New York Times