Paul Laxalt U.S. Senatorial Papers
Scope and Contents
The Paul Laxalt U. S. Senatorial Papers primarily document Laxalt's tenure in the U. S. Senate dating from his entrance in 1974 to his retirement in 1987, as well as his work and friendship with President Ronald Reagan. The majority of materials pertain to his time in Federal office and comprise the files of his legislative staff, constituent services, and campaign materials. The papers and materials located within this collection reflect the congressional activities and the committee positions held by Laxalt and offer insights into the legislative, political, and democratic processes in the United States Senate. A second significant area is the set of materials documenting his work as Reagan’s presidential campaign manager and advisor. The papers also reflect topics pertaining to public lands in the American West during the 1980s such as the Sagebrush Rebellion, the proposed MX Missile system, cattle ranching, wild horses and burros, native and endangered species, land swaps, tribal land claims, mining and energy, and the use and allocation of water in arid areas.
- Laxalt, Paul (Creator, Person)
Conditions Governing Access
Collection is open for research. Materials must be used on-site; advance notice suggested. Access to parts of this collection may be restricted under provisions of state or federal law.
Paul Laxalt was born on August 2, 1922 at St. Mary's Hospital in Reno, Nevada to his parents Dominique and Theresa Laxalt. Like thousands of other young men from the Pyrenees region between France and Spain, Dominique Laxalt arrived in 1906 in the American West at the age of eighteen with virtually nothing to become a sheepherder. He hoped that the high deserts of the Far West would offer greater economic opportunities than the old country. For many years, Dominique herded sheep on the isolated foothills and ranges of Northern California and Nevada.
As Dominique Laxalt earned money, he bought sheep. Once he accumulated a considerable flock, he employed others to herd for him. By the early 1920s, Dominique had become a sizeable figure in the sheep business in the West. His business dealings regularly took him to Reno where in 1921 he met Theresa Alpetche. She was in the United States seeing to her younger brother, Michel, who had been injured in a gas attack in World War I. Theresa was also from a small Basque village located about an hour's drive from where Dominique was born. Shortly after meeting, the two were married and went to live on a spacious ranch near Yerington, Nevada.
In the late 1920s, amid economic depression in the West, revenues in the sheep industry began to fall. Dominique was unable to keep up with his bank loans and was eventually forced to return to sheepherding full-time. Theresa and Dominque lived in the sheep camps before purchasing a hotel. Theresa heard that a small Basque hotel was available for purchase for one hundred dollars in Carson City, Nevada. She bought the establishment, named it the "French Hotel," and moved the then small family to Nevada's tiny capital city.
Prior to coming to the United States, Theresa had been trained at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. In addition to running a boarding house out of the hotel, she also operated a small restaurant. Dominique's job kept him away from home in the hills above Carson City for long periods of time, so Laxalt and his five younger siblings, Robert, Suzanne, John, Marie, and Peter helped their mother at the restaurant. It was there, listening to the conversations of Carson City's politicians, that he took an interest in politics.
Laxalt attended Carson High School where he played on the state championship basketball team. Upon graduation from high school, Laxalt headed for college at Santa Clara University in Northern California. In the summer of 1942, after the United States entered World War II, Laxalt's education was interrupted when he joined the army. He was assigned as an army medical corpsman, and in 1944 saw combat during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. Following Japan's surrender in September 1945, and Laxalt's discharge, he resumed his studies at Denver University where he graduated in 1949 with a Bachelor of Arts and law degree.
Laxalt's political career began in 1950 when he ran for the position of district attorney of Ormsby County, winning against the longtime incumbent, Dick Waters. After one term, Laxalt resigned in 1954 and began practicing law, which he did for the next nine years to come. He took on a variety of legal cases including land and water issues disputes, and others involving some of Northern Nevada's high-profile gaming and real estate figures. Laxalt's legal career afforded him a high degree of visibility in Northern Nevada.
Laxalt's first run for statewide office occurred in 1962 when he ran as a Republican for lieutenant governor against former congressman, Berkeley L. Bunker. During a campaign rally in Las Vegas, Laxalt's running partner, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rex Bell, suffered a massive heart attack and died. Republican leaders from across the state encouraged Laxalt to consider taking Bell's place, but he declined and remained in the race for lieutenant governor instead. Laxalt's grassroots rural campaign coupled with an ambitious radio and television campaign aimed at Las Vegas (where he had very little name recognition) allowed him to defeat Bunker by a favorable margin. Laxalt served one term as lieutenant governor from 1963 to 1967.
In 1964, halfway through his term, he entered into a tough race for a seat in the U.S. Senate against incumbent Howard Cannon. In one of the closest U.S. Senate elections ever, Cannon defeated Laxalt by just 48 votes, which immediately raised suspicion of election fraud. At the same time Laxalt was dueling with Cannon for a seat in the Senate, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was competing with Lyndon Johnson for the presidency. It was against this backdrop that Laxalt's unique personal and political friendship with Ronald Reagan began when they met at a 1964 Goldwater fundraising event in California where Reagan was speaking. Two years later, both were elected as governors of their neighboring states, Nevada and California. During their governorships, the men frequently visited back and forth between Sacramento and Carson City.
Laxalt’s interest in becoming governor began in 1955, when Laxalt challenged two-term Governor Grant Sawyer on a platform that promoted cooperation with the federal government on issues of investigating corruption and organized crime in Nevada's gaming industry. In the aftermath of the election, Sawyer was defeated by nearly 6,000 votes. Laxalt's tenure as governor was noted for his support of corporate ownership of gaming operations in Nevada (including Howard Hughes' purchase of multiple hotel-casinos in Las Vegas), which allowed for the establishment of Nevada's first community colleges and medical school . Laxalt, along with California Governor Ronald Reagan was integral in creating the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to protect and conserve Lake Tahoe. His other achievements included expanding the park service and promoting prison reform in Nevada. Laxalt dismissed the idea of running for reelection in 1970. He believed returning to private life would be more beneficial for himself and his family.
Immediately after leaving the governorship, Laxalt's political activity was minimal. He focused his attention instead on his family, building and opening the Ormsby House hotel-casino, and practicing law. He did remain in occasional contact with Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, but that was the extent his of political dealings during that point in his life. In 1973, Senator Alan Bible unexpectedly announced his plans to retire. In February 1974, Laxalt announced his candidacy, and easily won the Republican primary in September of the same year to face off against Democrat Harry Reid. By late 1974, however, the Republican Party was suffering from fallout created by the Watergate scandal and President Gerald Ford's subsequent pardon of Richard Nixon. Laxalt defeated Reid by a small margin of just 624 votes. Senator Bible resigned three weeks early in December 1974, and Governor Mike O'Callaghan appointed Laxalt to finish out Bible's term, giving him a slight leg-up in seniority.
In 1975, Laxalt found himself a minority within the minority when he made the decision to endorse his friend, and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan to unseat President Ford in the looming Republican primary Laxalt was the only U.S. senator to back Reagan, serving as the chairman of his campaign. Though this decision was largely unpopular among his colleagues, polling numbers revealed that Reagan was a credible conservative candidate. Following Reagan's narrow loss in the 1976 primary, Laxalt went on to work for the Ford campaign in the general election.
During the Carter Administration, Laxalt found himself as the leading conservative critic of the new administration. He was responsible for opposing transfer of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government, he also adamantly opposed legislation (Section 8(b)(4) of the National Labor Relations Act) that allowed for "common situs picketing." His efforts thrust him into the Senate spotlight where he became a leading conservative spokesman as the 1978 midterm congressional elections approached. Laxalt gave up on trying to fashion policy and instead focused on issues that might be used in the 1980 presidential election including the Family Protection Act and encouragement of the Sagebrush Rebellion
1980 was a big year for Laxalt, not only was he up for reelection in the Senate, but Reagan was again seeking the presidency. Laxalt had spent the prior two years amid an inner circle of advisors working on behalf of Reagan's candidacy. There was serious speculation that Laxalt might be considered for the vice president slot. However, Laxalt realized that strategically, his consideration for the position was not feasible. Although Laxalt may have been Reagan's personal choice, the more moderate George H. Bush, Reagan's strongest opponent in the primary elections, was chosen as his running mate. The events of 1980 resulted in Laxalt’s reelection to the Senate by an overwhelming margin over his liberal opponent, Mary Gojack, Republican control over the Senate for the first time since 1954, and Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter. After Reagan's election, the media began referring to Laxalt as "the First Friend." Republicans, Laxalt included, believed that the stage was set for a great "new beginning."
In his second term in the Senate, Laxalt was well-known due to his friendship with the president and his efforts over the Panama Canal fight. Other conservatives urged him to challenge Howard Baker for the position of majority leader. Laxalt declined and instead went on to serve as the general chairman of the Republican Party beginning in 1983. He also became chairman of the powerful Appropriations Subcommittee, which had jurisdiction over the Departments of State, Justice, and Commerce. Because of this, Laxalt was included in leadership meetings with the president.
One of Laxalt's most notable victories during his period was his resistance to, and prevention of the MX missile system being located in Nevada. Another notable instance was his 1985 trip to the Philippines at the behest of President Reagan. The National Security Council indicated that the country might be on the verge of a communist takeover. Laxalt was sent as an emissary to deliver a stern message to the president of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos. It was the first time Laxalt had been in the Philippines in 41 years. He met with Marcos and expressed President Reagan's concerns about the political and economic instability of the Philippines.
Laxalt was at the zenith of his political career as the 1984 election cycle began -- he was the general chairman of the Republican Party, chairman for President Reagan's reelection effort, chairman of two legislative subcommittees, and the spokesman for Republican causes. Laxalt was the intermediary between the president and his senate colleagues of both parties. As Laxalt had done two times before in 1976 and 1980, he again nominated Reagan at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas. The convention was something Laxalt and his colleagues in the Republican National Committee had begun planning in 1982. There was very little doubt within the party that Reagan would seek reelection in 1984. Reagan was overwhelmingly reelected, winning the electoral votes in all but Walter Mondale's home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia.
During his senatorial career Laxalt served on the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, the Appropriations Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and as national chairman for all of Reagan's presidential campaigns. Beginning in 1982, when Republicans regained the majority in the Senate, he became the chairman of the Judiciary Committee's Regulatory Reform Subcommittee and the general chairman of the Republican Party. In Laxalt's two terms he participated in the first and second sessions of the 94th Congress (1975-1977), the first and second sessions of the 95th Congress (1977-1979), the first and second sessions of the 96th Congress (1979-1981), the first and second sessions of the 97th Congress (1981-1983), the first and second sessions of the 98th Congress (1983-1985), and although his political involvement began to wane in 1986, his career covered the first and second sessions of the 99th Congress (1985-1987).
As his second term progressed, Laxalt privately decided it was the appropriate time to make a graceful exit from the Senate. Amidst pressure from friends, colleagues, and staffers and much self-reflection, Laxalt retreated to Marlette Lake, his Sierra Nevada refuge, and made his decision to retire effective in January 1987. He offered his support to Jim Santini. Santini ran a hard campaign but lost the race to then-Congressman Harry Reid. Despite Laxalt losing his seat to the Democrats, the Republicans still managed to hold a slight majority in the Senate. Although Laxalt considered the idea of running for the presidency in 1988, and even formed an exploratory committee, he eventually decided not to when he failed to raise his designated campaign funding goal. He did remain politically active helping with the George Bush campaign in 1988 and acting as an advisor for Senator Bob Dole's 1996 presidential bid. Laxalt continued to work in Washington as a political consultant and lobbyist with his business, "The Paul Laxalt Group," but maintained his ties with his home state and his beloved Marlette Lake.
Laxalt's legacy is lasting, from the son of a Basque sheepherder to the best friend of one of America's most beloved and admired presidents. One initiative that Laxalt derived great personal satisfaction from was the intern program that he established during his tenure in the Senate. College-age students were given the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. and work in Laxalt's Senate office for the equivalent of one semester. The program was responsible for turning out several individuals who went on to prominent careers in government including Nevada’s 29th Governor, Brian Sandoval. On August 2, 2012, Governor Sandoval declared that the date should be therefore designated as "Paul Laxalt Day."
Further reading on Paul Laxalt can be found in his memoir Nevada's Paul Laxalt: A Memoir (Reno, Nevada: Jack Bacon and Company, 2000), and in Laxalt's The Nominating of a President: The Three Nominations of Ronald Reagan as Republican Candidate for the Presidency (Reno, Nevada: Native Nevadan Publications, 1985).
501 Linear Feet (626 boxes)
Language of Materials
Paul Laxalt (1922-2018) was a politician from Nevada and the first Basque-American senator. The collection covers Laxalt's career as a U. S. Senator from Nevada from 1974 until his resignation effective January 3, 1987. Files are comprised of materials retained from offices in Carson City, Reno, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C., as well as materials retained from Senator Laxalt's time as the chair for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns in 1976, 1980, and 1984 and includes correspondence, speeches, schedules, legislative work on bills and hearings, news clips, reports, photographs and some audio/visual records.
Arranged in the following series: 1) Ronald Reagan; 2) Personal and Political; 3) Legislative Files; 4) Constituent Services; 5) Press; 6) Audio and Visual Materials; 7) Campaigns; 8) Photographs; 9) Gubernatorial and Legal Career.
Series are further arranged in subseries. See individual series arrangement notes for further information.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Donated by Paul Laxalt in 1983.
Photographs transferred to the Special Collections Photo Archives as collection number UNRS-P2015-12.
In 2014 the UNR Library applied for and received a Library Services and Technology Act grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, administered by the Nevada State Library and Archives to work with just the materials regarding Paul Laxalt's relationship with Ronald Reagan.
In 2018, the UNR Library was able to finish processing the collection when it received a second Library Services and Technology Act grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, administered by the Nevada State Library and Archives.
- Conservatism—United States—History—20th century
- Laxalt, Paul
- Nevada -- Politics and government -- 20th century
- Political parties -- United States -- History -- 20th century
- Politicians -- California
- Politicians -- Nevada
- Presidential candidates—United States—History
- Presidents -- United States -- Correspondence
- Reagan, Ronald
- Republican Party (Nev.)
- Republican Party (U.S. : 1854- )
- United States -- Politics and government -- 20th century
- United States. Congress. Senate
- United States. President (1981-1989 : Reagan)
- Guide to the Paul Laxalt U.S. Senatorial Papers
- Edan Strekal, Jacquelyn Sundstrand, Kimberly Anderson, Jessica Maddox, Ian McGlory
- August 2019
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- This project was made possible by a Library Services and Technology Act grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, administered by the Nevada State Library and Archives. With its support, these important materials from our political past are now available.