WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, who served as Ronald Reagan’s trusted liaison between the White House and Congress and also helped end Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos’s reign, has died, media reported.
He was 96.
Laxalt died on Monday in McLean, Virginia of natural causes, the New York Times reported.
Laxalt, the son of a Basque immigrant sheepherder, became Reagan’s political soulmate and close friend when they served as governors of neighboring Western states - Laxalt in Nevada from 1967 to 1971, and Reagan, a former actor, in California.
Laxalt, who served in the Senate from 1974 through 1987, headed Reagan’s unsuccessful campaign for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination against incumbent President Gerald Ford, as well as Reagan’s successful White House bids in 1980 and 1984.
Laxalt was called the “first friend” and his ties to Reagan provided him with a special niche as an influential liaison between the White House and Congress during the first six years of Reagan’s presidency.
The two men shared not only a dedication to free enterprise and conservatism but a laid-back, genial manner and a love of horseback riding and the outdoor lifestyle of the American West.
“He was a kind, decent man,” Laxalt said of Reagan in a 2008 interview with Nevada Magazine. “He never professed to know more than he should and he was very considerate of everybody else’s opinion. He was more than a Hollywood-type figure.”
Laxalt said he felt like a brother to Reagan and told the New York Times in 1982: “Because of my relationship with the president, I can say things in a manner that others can’t.”
William Cohen, a fellow Republican who also served in the Senate then, said at the time of Laxalt: “He plays a very important offstage role. He helps modulate (Reagan) administration policy and keeps them in tune with the Senate, so they understand when to push and when not to push.”
Reagan sent Laxalt on a delicate diplomatic mission to the Philippines in 1985 to urge Marcos, a long-time U.S. ally, to reform his government amid the “People Power” uprising. In February 1986, after Marcos retained his presidency in a dubious electoral victory, Laxalt helped engineer the long-serving dictator’s resignation.
With instability growing and Marcos barricaded in his palace, the Philippine leader telephoned Laxalt and asked, “Should I step down? Senator, what do you think?”
Laxalt said he replied: “Mr. President, I am not bound by diplomatic restraints. I am talking only for myself. I think you should cut and cut cleanly. I think the time has come.”
Such a comment from the president’s close friend showed the United States had withdrawn support for Marcos, and he resigned.
Laxalt won praise from conservatives in 1978 when he led an unsuccessful fight against Senate approval of Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s treaty under which the United States ceded the Panama Canal to Panama.
Laxalt ran unsuccessfully for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination to succeed Reagan. He then worked as a lawyer and consultant in Washington.
Laxalt served for years in the Senate with fellow Republican Pete Domenici and in February 2013, Domenici admitted to having fathered a child more than three decades earlier with Laxalt’s daughter, Michelle.
Laxalt was born in Reno on Aug. 2, 1922, and grew up in Carson City. In his memoir, he said he absorbed politics through conversations with prominent Nevadans while working in his mother’s French restaurant in the state capital.
He served as a U.S. Army medic during World War Two and afterward practiced law in Carson City. He became Nevada’s lieutenant governor in 1963 and governor four years later.
Laxalt was instrumental in creating the modern Las Vegas casino and tourism industry, championing measures while governor to let corporations hold gaming licenses. The federal government at the time was eager to close the Las Vegas Strip hotels that the FBI and others suspected were controlled by organized crime.
Laxalt settled a suit against the Sacramento Bee newspaper over an article alleging that a Nevada hotel casino he owned engaged in illegal skimming of profits. Although not personally accused of wrongdoing, he pressed a $250 million libel suit, arguing he was defamed by association. The suit was dropped in 1987 and his attorneys were awarded $650,000 to be paid by the newspaper.
Laxalt married his second wife, Carol Wilson, in 1976. He has five daughters and one son with his first wife.
He was the older brother of Robert Laxalt, author of “Sweet Promised Land” (1957) and other books.
Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Bill Trott, Richard Balmforth