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An epic friendship, witnessed up close

Nancy Reynolds’ life has been so filled with travel and political adventure that it’s hard to imagine there was a time she was just a small-town girl on horseback.

Before she toured the world as an assistant press secretary to California Gov. Ronald Reagan and witnessed up close the enduring friendship between the future president and Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt, Reynolds was a curious kid from Pocatello, Idaho, who dreamed of a trip to the “big city” as those she knew defined it.

You know, the bustling metropolis of Elko.

“It was like going to a foreign country nowadays,” Reynolds says, laughing at the eight-decade-old memory. “Nobody I knew in Idaho had ever traveled out of state or been to England or anyplace like that. It was something that was not in our lives. Going to Elko was like going to a foreign country. It was exciting. That’s how we felt about it, and it wasn’t just us. Lots of Idahoans were fond of Elko. It was just amazing. We Idahoans, you know, love our Nevada — and not just for the gambling.”

Then and now, Elko combined gambling’s neon and flashing lights with a ranching and mining influence. It was a boomtown and a crossroads for travelers from throughout the country. In time, Reynolds would get to know and love Nevada’s rugged mountains and its quaint state capital of Carson City.

The daughter of former Idaho congressman and U.S. Sen. D. Worth Clark, she left the West of her youth to attend convent school and university outside Washington, D.C., but returned as a television reporter. First in Idaho, then at KPIX in San Francisco, she honed her political reporting skill. She rose to co-anchor the 6 p.m. news before accepting a position as Gov. Reagan’s assistant press secretary for radio and the increasingly important medium of television. It was in that capacity that she not only traveled widely, but also enjoyed a front-row view of one of the strongest friendships in American political history: the brotherly alliance between Reagan and Laxalt.

“After they were governors, they became the best of friends,” Reynolds recalls. “For all his public life, Gov. Reagan was a man without a lot of close, personal friends. He had many people that he liked and trusted who worked for him, certainly, And when he was governor, he was cordial to everyone, but making an intimate connection with another person in politics was unusual.”

In a racket riddled with fraternal facades, Reagan and Laxalt were the real thing. As Reagan’s star ascended toward the presidential nomination, he sought to have Laxalt join him as his running mate. The plan failed for several reasons, including Laxalt’s at-times controversial ownership of the Ormsby House casino in Carson City, but that disappointment did nothing to deter their friendship.

“He and Paul clicked from the moment they met,” she says. “It was Paul’s personality. Everyone liked him. He was so easygoing. And he never put a lot of pressure on Reagan.”

To some Nevadans, the friendship didn’t pay enough dividends for the state. Others would counter that it never hurts to have a friend in the White House.

For Reynolds, Laxalt was a rare politician: a man respected across the aisles.

“I think he was a wonderful listener,” says Reynolds, a Santa Fe, N.M., resident. “He was never critical or preachy. He was just somebody who was so comfortable in his own skin that everyone wanted to be with him. Paul has a magical personality. It wasn’t just Reagan — everyone was drawn to him.”

Laxalt, now 92, remains one of Nevada’s iconic elected officials.

Reynolds would eventually be an honored traveling companion of Laxalt and his family when they returned to the family home in the Pyrenees. She would eat lamb and drink wine from a bota bag in the Basque tradition.

And she would see Paul Laxalt from Nevada revered as a hero in a distant place far from American politics, where the concepts of friendship and family were redolent with meaning.

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

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