Forgotten U.S. senator deserves, receives some recognition

You probably missed it as you rushed into the morning maelstrom at McCarran International Airport. Or maybe you didn’t notice it as you struggled with your suitcases after running the gantlet at baggage claim following a long flight home.

It’s understandable. After all, who goes to McCarran International Airport to experience a museum?

The Howard W. Cannon Aviation Museum stands like an afterthought just inside McCarran’s parking entrance, a short stumble from the moving walkway and one floor above the baggage claim beehive. The museum celebrates Southern Nevada’s seat-of-the-pants aviation beginnings.

It’s only fitting that it’s named after Cannon, who in my mind has long been the most important forgotten man in Nevada politics. He represented Nevada in the U.S. Senate from 1958 to 1982, and I’ll bet most state residents don’t recognize his name.

The airport that houses Cannon’s namesake museum honors Pat McCarran, the iron-fisted patronage king who these days is known more for his connection to McCarthyism than for anything he accomplished on behalf of the Silver State. But McCarran’s name is secure.

Despite Cannon’s many contributions to the state, his name seemed destined to fade like a bad dye job.

The Reno Airport was renamed the Reno-Cannon International Airport in 1979 at the height of the senator’s power. The distinction put him in the company of the legendary McCarran himself.

By 1994, the Northern Nevada airport was renamed Reno-Tahoe International. Cannon’s stature was reduced to the “Howard W. Cannon Terminal.”

Terminal, indeed.

Although Cannon lived another eight years, he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and was seldom seen around the Democratic political machine he’d oiled so well for so long. It seemed Cannon’s name would die with the man.

In his day, Cannon led the Armed Services Committee and the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. He was a Senate titan, an inside player.

When I visited him in his Washington office in the summer of 1982, I was prepared to shake hands with a larger-than-life character. At that time he was among the most powerful Democrats in the country.

What I experienced was a tired little guy with a cheap sport coat who had difficulty mustering the energy to complete a simple sentence. Little did I understand then that he was being politically mugged on the record and behind the scenes and was on his way out of Washington. He was being threatened with possible criminal charges in connection with his old Teamsters associates, who were accused of attempting to bribe him.

The unassuming Cannon would survive his final ignominious months in office, be defeated by Chic Hecht, then blend back into the landscape, a southwest Utah Mormon boy who was so shy he would never dream of mentioning he was a war hero.

Whenever I chase a flight at McCarran, I can’t help thinking about Howard Cannon, about what a big man he had been and how he’d been lost to Nevada history like a piece of scuffed luggage. There’s a lesson in that for a lot of today’s big shots, one most will never learn.

It’s a lesson driven home throughout Michael Vernetti’s new book, “Senator Howard Cannon of Nevada: A Biography.” Vernetti chronicles Cannon’s unlikely rise to power from his Mormon roots to his final days. Vernetti’s solid research and interviews were augmented by his time as Cannon’s Senate aide.

Were it looking for a scalp or scandal, the University of Nevada Press might have found a tougher biographer. A man of Cannon’s time and political influences generates no shortage of intriguing associates and benefactors. But Cannon’s Teamsters connections were tilled long ago.

Instead, we have a nicely crafted book that aches with a kind of sadness for Cannon’s seeming inability to celebrate his successes.

College of Southern Nevada history professor Michael Green, who helped shepherd the book into print, calls Cannon an enigmatic but “incredibly important Nevada political figure.”

“He’s been out of office for over a quarter of a century,” Green says. “Most Nevadans don’t know him now except as a name on a museum.”

Kenneth Fernandez of UNLV’s Political Science Department observes, “In reality in politics, relatively few people make a name for themselves.”

At least, not one that lasts.

Vernetti’s book gives the forgotten man of Nevada politics some long-overdue recognition.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at


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