“A friend in every sense of the word” is how President Ronald Reagan described Paul D. Laxalt ’44, who served as governor and U.S. senator from Nevada. Laxalt was an immigrant’s kid, a sheepherder. As an adult, he guided relationships through the halls of American power rather than the Nevada hills. In his friendships he connected with Reagan and a Kennedy.
Laxalt was a child of the Great Depression. His Basque parents put him to work early—watching his father’s sheep and in his mother’s restaurant, where he overheard politicians talk.
When he became a politician himself, Laxalt was known as a straight shooter and honest broker, and he herded friendships on both sides of the aisle. As governors—he in Nevada and Ronald Reagan in California—the pair worked together to protect Lake Tahoe from pollution. In the Senate, he played tennis with another powerful Catholic lawmaker—Edward M. Kennedy.
In an interview for Santa Clara Magazine in 1982, then-President Reagan said of Laxalt, “We enjoy each other’s company. He has a friend because he is a friend in every sense of the word.”
Laxalt came to Santa Clara in 1940, a history major and tennis player. In May 1943 war interrupted his studies; he enlisted in the Army. For three years, Laxalt served as a medic in the South Pacific. He returned to campus to study law, and he ultimately graduated from the University of Denver.
In 1974, he became the junior senator from Nevada. He was the only Republican to take a seat previously held by a Democrat in that post-Watergate era.
When his old friend Reagan sought the presidency, Laxalt chaired all three presidential campaigns. When Reagan’s second attempt ended in the White House, Laxalt’s star ascended. He became “the president’s eyes and ears.” It was he whom Reagan tapped to encourage Philippine strongman President Ferdinand Marcos to step down, as well as a scandal-plagued cabinet member.
Paul Laxalt died August 9 at the age of 96. Laxalt outlived his brothers Robert Laxalt ’45, Peter Laxalt ’52, and John Laxalt ’50. He leaves behind his second wife, Carol Laxalt; seven children; 12 grandchildren, including Nevada Lt. Gov. and Republican nominee for governor Adam Paul Laxalt; several great-grandchildren; and many great friends.