Nevada politicians would have amused Vonnegut

“I was once asked if I had any ideas for a really scary reality TV show. I have one reality show that would really make your hair stand on end: ‘C-Students from Yale.'”

–Kurt Vonnegut, “A Man Without a Country”

Kurt Vonnegut would have loved Gov. Jim Gibbons.

The great novelist, who died last week at age 84, was so disgusted by what humans were capable of doing to each other that he often turned to humor as a coping mechanism. A survivor of the Dresden firebombing massacre during World War II, Vonnegut marveled at the absurdities of war, politics and culture. He called Earth “the Lunatic Asylum of the Universe.”

In his 2005 nonfiction book “A Man Without a Country,” he described the current state of affairs in America with dark wit: “This book is about congenitally defective human beings of a sort that is making this whole country and many other parts of the planet go completely haywire nowadays. These were people born without consciences, and suddenly they are taking charge of everything.”

Vonnegut was referring to the Bush administration. But to an extent, the description applies to some Nevada politicians as well.

For example, I’ve long thought of Gibbons as an empty suit. But I didn’t know until recently that it was a spaceman suit.

Gibbons, having a difficult time of it in his first 100 days as Nevada’s chief executive, has dreamed up an excuse for his troubles: The dastardly Democrats bribed a highly respected national newspaper to besmirch his good name.

Actually, Gibbons didn’t conjure this fantasy on his own. He heard a rumor that the opposition party paid off The Wall Street Journal to tarnish his reputation. Gibbons apparently thought this conspiracy theory was legitimate enough to repeat to a Reno Gazette-Journal reporter.

Now, Gibbons might be on to something if it were, oh, The Nation magazine probing his questionable activities while serving in Congress. After all, most subscribers to The Nation are Democrats, if not outright socialists. But The Wall Street Journal? It’s hard to imagine the newspaper most closely identified with raw capitalism and conservative politics entertaining the idea of Democrats buying negative coverage of one of such as insignificant political figure.

As you might expect, the reaction from local political observers has ranged from incredulous to dumbfounded. Colorful language abounds. CityLife Editor Steve Sebelius, in his blog, characterized Gibbons’ conspiracy theory as “narcissism (like Gibbons is so important he must be taken out!) combined with paranoia, wrapped up in a pathetic, nutty shell, held together by the nougat of delusion.” Review-Journal political columnist Erin Neff added: “Gibbons thinks the world is out to get him. But believing in a vast left-wing conspiracy makes it appear he’s gone from delusional to just plain nuts. At least the former Air Force and commercial airline pilot is not flying planes anymore.” The Sun’s Jon Ralston had trouble working up a smile, expressing concern about Gibbons’ “incremental descent into madness.”

Sadly, however, we have been unable to contain the Jim Gibbons show within the Silver State borders. Word has leaked out that our governor is a little off.

MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann last week honored Gibbons as his daily pick for “Worst Person in the World.” Olbermann asked: “Governor, don’t you think, if the Democrats could get good coverage out of The Wall Street Journal by paying for it, they might spend the money on a little higher-value target than the governor of Nevada?”

Gibbons may be the strangest governor in Nevada history. Consider our postwar heads of state — Vail Pittman, Charles Russell, Grant Sawyer, Paul Laxalt, Mike O’Callaghan, Bob List, Richard Bryan, Bob Miller and Kenny Guinn. Each had his quirks but none of them came close to the bizarre antics of Gibbons, who’s been in office for a whopping four months.

Unfortunately, Gibbons is not the only loony bird in the capital city. At the Legislature, amid important discussions about education, transportation and criminal justice, state Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, was touting a bill to allow teachers to carry concealed weapons in their classrooms.

This was a ridiculous idea, and Beers’ suggestion that gun-wielding algebra instructors will deter terrorists was almost as outlandish as Gibbons’ slandering of the WSJ.

Beers is generally a smart guy, but this guns-in-schools legislation was beneath him. He seemed to be doing the National Rifle Association’s bidding. The NRA is always looking for ways to shoot holes in gun regulation, and this had all the markings of the latest test case.

Isolated tragedies have occurred on school campuses. Deranged individuals have gone on shooting sprees. I acknowledge there is a possibility that if a teacher had access to a gun in one of those situations, lives could have been saved. But we really have no way of knowing how things would turn out.

Arming teachers would have far more potential negative effects than positive. For one thing, many parents would object, and they might question whether to send their children to a school where teachers have loaded weapons. I know that would be my response.

Second, many teachers who have no interest in carrying guns will object to their colleagues having them in nearby classrooms. This could hamper recruitment of teachers, which are desperately needed here. Third, who’s to say these heat-packing educators, trained or not, wouldn’t put their weapons to use on unruly students or oppressive administrators?

A Senate committee voted down Beers’ bill last week. At least now he can get back to what he does best: badgering the Democrats over state spending priorities.

Meanwhile, Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, pondering ways to reduce the costs of the Millennium Scholarship program, came up with a doozy: Don’t give Millennium Scholarships to liberal arts majors.

The theory, best I can figure, is that the scholarships should be reserved for young Nevadans who pursue degrees in fields of the state’s greatest need, such as nursing and education.

But wait a minute? Isn’t this the Entertainment Capital of the World? We sing, we dance, we act, we perform astounding feats of magic! Las Vegas has ample demand for liberal arts majors, too.

Seriously, the notion of discriminating in this manner makes no sense at all. College is not about training for a specific job, it’s about learning how to think and being exposed to great ideas. It’s worth noting that the man responsible for building Mandalay Bay, one of the finest and most successful resorts on the Strip, was an English major.

Naturally, Vonnegut, always an against-the-grain type, is no help in my battle against the anti-liberal arts proposal. “If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts,” Vonnegut wrote. “I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living.”

Vonnegut, of course, personified the fallacy of this argument. And because he was just being funny, here’s what he really thought: “[The arts] are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.”

I have no problem whatsoever awarding Millennium Scholarships to grow some souls. And perhaps fill some suits.

Geoff Schumacher ( is Stephens Media’s director of community publications. He is the author of “Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas” and, coming in October, “Politics, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue: The Las Vegas Years of Howard Hughes.” His column appears Sunday.

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