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Rethinking renaming

When I heard Las Vegas City Councilman Steve Ross was trying to re-name McCarran International Airport, I was all in favor.

Like many Nevadans, I’ve been exposed to plenty of stories about former U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran’s dark side: his red-baiting, his McCarthyism, his anti-Semitism.

Why wouldn’t we re-name McCarran for somebody more deserving? (I think here of the great former Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, whom I had the privilege to know when I worked as a reporter at the Las Vegas Sun.) We should at least choose a name with more geographic significance, such as Las Vegas International Airport. (Tourists gazing upon airport signs with McCarran’s name and the phrase “Clark County welcomes you” have no idea what either means.)

But then I had dinner with Bob and Linda Faiss, and I learned something that I never knew before, something that goes a long way toward changing my mind about McCarran.

Put simply, it’s this: Without McCarran, there would be no such thing as Las Vegas. As much as Hoover Dam, the interstate highway system, the U.S. Army Air Corps (and later the U.S. Air Force) and the invention of air conditioning, Las Vegas owes its existence to Pat McCarran.

Faiss, a partner at Las Vegas’ largest law firm, Lionel, Sawyer & Collins, a pioneer in gaming law and a professor at UNLV’s Boyd Law School, turned me on to one of his students. Ryan Draney is embarking on a research paper about McCarran titled, “The Man Who Saved Nevada.” And he’s turned up some powerful evidence in support of the case for honoring McCarran.

After the famous investigation into organized crime led by U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver, D-Tenn., there emerged in the House a proposal to essentially tax gambling out of existence. It would have imposed a 10 percent tax on the gross profits of gambling. According to Robert Laxalt’s 1971 book, “Nevada,” the tax would have automatically put all Nevada’s casinos out of business. No casinos, no Las Vegas, at least not as we know it.

McCarran wasn’t exactly a proud defender of the town. He worried about Nevada’s increasing dependence on gambling revenue.

Laxalt quotes from a private letter McCarran wrote to a friend: “It isn’t a very laudable position for one to have to defend gambling,” McCarran wrote. “The rest of the world looks upon him with disdain even though every other state in the union is harboring gambling in one form or another, illegally of course, and even though the state he defends and represents has legalized gambling, it doesn’t take from the actuality of defending the thing in an open forum, where men from all walks of life and all particular phrase and religious bents are listening and laughing, condemning or ridiculing. But, when the gambling business is so involved in the economic structure of one’s state, one must lay away pride and put on the hide of a rhinoceros and go to it.”

And go to it McCarran did, defeating the tax, and saving what would become the state’s key industry. (A side note: McCarran’s concern about the reliance upon gambling revenue resonates even today.)

Draney’s research paper title is well-chosen; McCarran was literally the man who saved Nevada.

And there are other arguments, too, some proffered by College of Southern Nevada history professor Michael Green in a recent article in Vegas Seven: McCarran was the sponsor of the bill that created the Civil Aeronautics Board, later the FAA. He helped obtain for Nevada the Army Air Corps gunnery school, later Nellis Air Force Base. He helped pave the way for the construction of the airport that now bears his name.

But the biggest, and most important, reason to keep McCarran’s name on the airport is this: There would never have been a Las Vegas without him.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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