Imagine this public-service announcement the next time your air travel brings you to McCarran International Airport.
“Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, one of the most exciting and ethnically diverse cities in the world. Now a word from our namesake, U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran:
‘Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain. The solution of the problems of Europe and Asia will not come through a transplanting of those problems en masse to the United States.'”
Sounds downright Trumpian, doesn’t he? With that kind of hard-core, anti-immigration rhetoric, the president would probably name McCarran attorney general, or at least dispatch him to cable news shows to share his views with the nation.
Although McCarran was talking about the refugees from areas ravaged during World War II, he was obsessed with the idea European Jews were pouring into the Land of the Free with their un-American values. Although they weren’t high on his radar, people of color fared little better with the powerhouse Nevada Democrat — McCarran’s cuts sliced deeper than the accepted prejudices of his generation.
Now Gov.-elect Steve Sisolak wants to remove McCarran’s name from the bustling Las Vegas airport and replace it with former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, the most powerful Nevada politician in this generation. If Sisolak gets his wish, as a bonus the name of the Reno-Tahoe Airport — which once honored powerhouse Sen. Howard Cannon — will be named in celebration of the legacy of Paul Laxalt, yet another powerhouse politician.
While I can’t claim much insight into his matter, and there are surely bureaucratic complexities beyond my comprehension, I make it a big favorite to pass. They’re probably buying the ribbons and scheduling the cutting already.
It’s not like anyone is going to campaign against it. It polishes the chrome on the legacies of Democrat icon Reid and Republican hero Laxalt. For Sisolak, it’s a big thank you to his political benefactor, Reid, and would go a long way to mending hurt feelings inside a Laxalt family that was bitterly divided during the 2018 governor’s race.
Nor is it a particularly expensive proposition: less than $2 million for each airport with the costs being covered by private donations. They could probably raise the extortionate parking rates at McCarran for a few months and cover the bill without anyone noticing.
Even if the taxpayers picked up the tab, what of it? The state has doled out billions in tax breaks and set asides for billionaires who aren’t even from here. Would it kill us to hug Harry and recall Tall Paul?
Afterward, let’s hope Nevada’s new governor gets down to real business.
Of course, some folks will grouse that changing the names on airports could lead to changes in other institutions. Eventually, that could lead to someone suggest we change the name of Carson City. After all, Kit Carson was not only a pathfinder, but also a particularly effective Indian fighter.
Reid and Laxalt weren’t strangers to foot-in-mouth-disease during their storied careers, but they can’t compare to the crazy stuff that emerged from McCarran’s blower over the years. When you’re a red-baiter and a Jew-hater, it’s bound to happen.
Here’s a favorite, as recounted in David M. Oshinsky’s A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy, drawn from a 1951 interview with U.S. News and in which McCarran offered a glimpse of his world view. Turns out the godless Communists weren’t all in China, but right in our own backyard.
Question: Has the infiltration gone on in all walks of life? For example, do you think there’s been infiltration in the press?
Answer: Oh, yes.
Q: How about the churches?
A: Yes, all kinds of churches.
Q: How about educational institutions?
A: Yes, if you mean faculties.
Q: How about labor unions?
A: Oh, yes.
Q: What about nationality groups?
A: There are nationality groups in which there are Communists. As a matter of fact, the Communists make special efforts to influence and use foreign language groups in this country.
There’s probably room for another Trump joke here, but I’ll skip it.
Even Nevada history scholars have been surprised at the depth of McCarran’s disdain for Jews and minorities. In a March 2017 statement before the state Senate Committee on Government Affairs, UNLV historian Michael Green wisecracked, “I have joked for some years that McCarran was a racist, anti-Semitic, communist witch-hunting lunatic, but he was OUR racist, anti-Semitic, communist witch-hunting lunatic.” But the more the historian researched, the worse McCarran looked.
McCarran once privately described the refugees in question to his administrative assistant Eva Adams: “Eighty-seven percent are of one blood, one race, one religion. You know what that is without my telling you,” he said, referring to Jewish refugees. McCarran also undercut President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s court and commission nominees because they were Jews.
Although he was no scholar, McCarran was a master of procedure, protocol and the unwritten politics of the Senate and a masterful obstructionist who brought pork projects home to Nevada — including funding for the burgeoning Las Vegas airport — and groomed a generation of loyalists by providing them with patronage jobs and educational opportunities.
Although Life magazine once lauded McCarran’s apparent independent streak by calling him the “unpredictable Mustang,” at home he was a creature of Nevada’s many influences, including its mob-dominated casino industry. Beyond the signage on one of the nation’s busiest airports, McCarran is remembered as a sort of second banana to a more bombastic, anti-Communist crusader from Wisconsin, as The Money and the Power co-author Sally Denton observed, “McCarran’s stature lent weight to charges coming from more transparent demagogues like Senator Joseph McCarthy.”
McCarran’s name, once feared and revered from Washoe to Washington, has been tarred by time and the truth about the man.
As new McCarrans jockey for the microphone in the Trump era, it’s important to remember that a larger-than-life bronze statue stands in the Capitol Rotunda that honors a Nevada senator who served from 1933-1954. On its nameplate is inscribed, “Champion of the American way of life.”
And if that doesn’t make your blood run cold, pal, nothing will.
John L. Smith is a longtime columnist and author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith