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If we’re erasing McCarran’s name, maybe we should dump some others

For a generation of residents who didn’t pay close attention in their Nevada history class, McCarran is merely the name of the busy Las Vegas airport.

It’s likely that only a small percentage of the millions of people who pass through its doors each year know that it’s named for a controversial powerhouse U.S. senator of a previous era, the Democrat Pat McCarran.

So when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced Friday as he stood in McCarran International Airport that the name of the long-dead political titan should be removed from its place of honor, he managed to grab everyone’s attention. Reid, a controversial powerhouse in the current age, also shed light on McCarran’s very mixed legacy.

In addition to being a patronage king, author of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 and fierce defender of the state’s casino and mining interests, McCarran also was a raging anti-Communist who was a fellow traveler of the red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. McCarran did little to hide his own streak of anti-Semitism and ethnic prejudice.

“Pat McCarran was one of the most anti-Semitic … one of the most anti-black, one of the most prejudiced people ever to serve in the Senate,” Reid said, speaking of a legislative body that has included the likes of Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms.

Although the Clark County Commission has the power to decide whether to rename the airport, as usual Reid made his opinion clear.

It’s a view shared by many others: Despite his accomplishments, McCarran’s prejudices were so great that they warrant the removal of his name from a place of honor at the airport. Frankly, that’s fine with me.

Of course, if they’re going to remove the McCarran name from the airport, someone should give the city of Reno a heads-up. Its citizens regularly travel on McCarran Boulevard. And North Las Vegas residents navigate McCarran Street.

But while we’re sanitizing our image, what will we do with Carson City?

Capital namesake Kit Carson was a legendary mountain man, trapper and explorer extraordinaire, but he also was an accomplished killer of Native Americans. By one count, he killed 50 and took part in field campaigns that slaughtered hundreds.

College of Southern Nevada history professor Michael Green agrees with Reid’s character assessment, but he quickly adds that McCarran was also a major force for Nevada.

“Reid is correct in how he describes McCarran: a Communist witch hunter and an anti-Semite,” Green says. “No one in his right mind would defend that. Sad to say, though, he was our witch-hunter and anti-Semite. Do we even have that airport without McCarran? It’s debatable.”

McCarran also made sure Basic Magnesium was built in Southern Nevada, and in the process established Henderson. His clout forced open the doors of the gunnery school, and that led to the birth of Nellis Air Force Base.

When Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver’s Senate rackets committee had Nevada’s casino cats on the run, McCarran successfully defended them.

Frankly, erasing Reno native McCarran from our airport would be a fitting slap after the removal of the late U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon’s name from the northern community’s airport. Petty, but appropriate.

But I would caution those who want to raise the issue at a future commission meeting to be careful what they wish for. They’re balancing on a slippery slope.

McCarran was a state legislator, state Supreme Court justice, served 21 years in the U.S. Senate and ran a powerful political machine that helped produce future Gov. Grant Sawyer. McCarran died in 1954, and these days I rarely receive complaints about McCarran’s name.

I do, however, regularly get messages from spitting-mad taxpayers who remain disgusted by the fact they can still find the names of corrupt ex-Commissioners Lance Malone, Erin Kenny, Dario Herrera and Mary Kincaid-Chauncey on plaques honoring their contributions to various county buildings and facilities prior to going off to the penitentiary.

Maybe the image-sensitive commissioners should start by scrubbing in their own kitchen.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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