Column: The City that Hates History

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Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Legalized Gambling: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara and Denver: ABC-Clio, 1994 and 1997-2nd ed.).

Las Vegas, Nevada, is a very unlikely place to find American history. After all, in this city people worship the future as they always look to the next pull of a handle, roll of the dice, or deal of the deck; and also, they make a point out of forgetting that last loss. For those who do reach for history in Las Vegas, we throw up little obstacles. Instead of making our historical sites entries on a national registry, we blow up the sites.

Now the ostensible reason we implode buildings in Las Vegas is that they are old--like maybe forty years old--and we have to clear the way for progress. But I really suspect there is another reason. Let's consider three of the most famous recent implosions.

The shifting sands of time felled the Sands Casino in 1996. Today if you look for the Sands, all you see is an almost bigger than life replica of Venice, Italy complete with canals, shops, 3000 hotel rooms, convention center and a casino that makes the Lido Casino appear to be the size of a Manhattan candy store and bookie joint. But underneath the present day concrete structure there was a palace,"The" palace of Las Vegas in the late 1950s and 1960s. The Sands was the home of"The Rat Pack" headed up by Frank"Ole Blue Eyes" Sinatra, Mr. Las Vegas himself (a title later shared with Liberace, Elvis, and Wayne Newton, and maybe soon with Bill Clinton). Sinatra held court and everyone else danced for him, it was his stage and the rest of us were his jesters. Frank himself held a casino gambling license as he owned a Lake Tahoe casino and it was rumored that he held 9 percent of the Sands. He lost his license after he was challenged for entertaining and hosting Sam Giancana and a girlfriend (one of the McGuire Sisters). Sam was an"excluded person"--one of the most notorious organized crime figures that he was actually banned from all casinos by the state Gaming Control Board. Rather than being contrite, paying a small fine, and promising not to do it again, Sinatra himself imploded with a string of vile invectives against Board members (some were recorded in telephone conversations), and he was out of gambling from 1963 into the 1980s. Giancana was not only a pisano, he was part of the Sands legend, as he sent his girlfriend--a new one named Judy Campbell--to hang around with the"Pack." Peter Lawford was also part of the pack, and so also was a young senator, at least he was a hanger-on.
In Las Vegas we don't want history. History is about losers.
The senator was actor Peter Lawford's brother in law, and he was seriously seeking the presidency. Sinatra and his mobster buddies saw an opportunity. The Washington political establishment was putting the heat on the Mob, which was under investigation by the McClellan Senate committee. Maybe a new president could be persuaded to turn the heat down just a bit. The young senator was schmoozed and boozed, and he was fixed-up with Judy. He took her intimate friendship with him from Las Vegas right into the White House.

A couple problems arose out of this relationship. First, the Mob"thought" they had the new president bought (in addition to a girl friend they had bought him the key West Virginia primary--certainly with his daddy's knowledge). Second, Mr. Sam Giancana and his close buddy Santos Trafficante had a contract from the Central Intelligence Agency to murder Fidel Castro. The Mob was anxious to reclaim its Havana Casinos, and our government thought that was the"Red, White, and Blue" thing to do.

Now the official word is that the appearance of Jack Ruby in Havana means nothing, the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald's surrogate father (uncle) worked for associates of Giancana (in the Carlos Marcello"family") in New Orleans, and that Ruby also did is all coincidental nonsense. Okay for the official word. But just perhaps the skinny little ex-Marine didn't do"everything" by himself, then there could have been a very good Las Vegas Sands connection to an assassination of the president. Perhaps, a Castro retaliation, or perhaps a Mob hit because the president's brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy kept up his pursuit of the Mob--he just couldn't back off a bit.

We blew up the Landmark in 1995. We just had to expand the parking lot for the Convention Center. After all we get four million convention visitors a year, and what do they care about history. The"Flying Saucer atop a Stick" shaped casino was purchased by Howard Hughes in 1968 before it opened. But alas Ramsey Clark and the Justice Team in the Lyndon Johnson Administration felt Howard owned too much of Las Vegas--by now his purchases had given him about 30 percent of the Strip. Clark indicated he would not approve the purchase on antitrust grounds. Hughes was furious, and he took out his sizeable pocketbook. He would control the next president. He gave the Nixon for President campaign $100,000, and he had his right-hand man Robert Maheu give Hubert Humphrey a $50,000 bribe (the"Little Men" get less--or so it used to be).

So how could Hughes bribe Bobby Kennedy, also a presidential candidate? Not with money. Instead Hughes hired Larry O'Brien, Kennedy family bosom buddy, and Postmaster General in the John F. Kennedy cabinet, to be on his legal staff. He was Hughes's lawyer at the time of the Nixon" contribution." Nixon was elected; Hughes bought, and then sold the Landmark (at least Nixon was a man of his word when he took the cash), and he departed Las Vegas as a very strange character. Trouble is, O'Brien became Democratic Party National Chairman in 1972 as Nixon prepared for his reelection campaign. Nixon panicked as he thought O'Brien had the"goods" on him, that O'Brien had solid evidence about the $100,000"bribe," ala" contribution."

Nixon's intelligence was incomplete. He never knew he held checkmate, that O'Brien could not use the $100,000 bribe against Nixon, because Humphrey had also taken a bribe. Nixon was not sure what information O'Brien had, and what he might use regarding the Landmark deal. So a word or two to Ehrlichman and Haldeman, another word passed down the line to Gordon Liddy, and soon the plans for the break-ins (many break-ins) were in place. Liddy's group was quite successful in its first attempts to compromise the offices of O'Brien in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., but alas in June 1972, they were caught. And the rest is"History." It is"Las Vegas History." The rationale for the Watergate break-in and the subsequent scandal that resulted in the first presidential resignation in U.S. history can be traced back to the corner of Paradise Road and Convention Center Drive in Las Vegas, and a parking lot where once the Landmark casino stood.

We also blew up the Dunes in 1993. Which brings up Jimmy Hoffa, whose son played a critical role last year in the campaign of Al Gore (the Teamsters supported Gore over Bush). Just what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, Sr? The mystery is now revealed. It is in the ashes and rubble of the Dunes, buried beneath the new super casino, the Bellagio, at Las Vegas Blvd. South and Flamingo Road.

Jimmy Hoffa financed the building of the Dunes with Teamster Pension Fund money. He loaned the money, the Teamster's got 2 percent on the loan (when banks were paying 5 percent), but Hoffa got an immediate 10 percent kickback, and Hoffa also got access to the casino cage where he was able to take a percentage of the profits in what we call a"skim" operation. (A"skim" operation was featured in the movie"Casino.") So it was in the early 1960s. But then, Bobby Kennedy kept up his crusade against Hoffa for misusing union money. One prosecution ended in a hung jury, but it was discovered that Hoffa had bribed a juror. In a new trial he was convicted of jury tampering, and sent to prison. He left Frank Fitzsimmons in charge of the union, feeling that Fitzsimmons would be loyal to him. Fitzsimmons was not loyal, and he cut Hoffa out of the information loop. While Hoffa rotted away in prison alone, Fitzsimmons kept up the skim operations, and kept the questionable"loans to casinos" going.

Hoffa was pardoned by Nixon in return for Teamster Union support in the 1972 campaign. Actually Fitzsimmons arranged the pardon as a way Fitzsimmons could appear to be a friend to Hoffa who was still very popular with the truck driving membership of the union. However, Nixon and Fitzsimmons slipped a little one in on Hoffa. After Hoffa was released they forged the pardon to read that by accepting it Hoffa agreed not to participate in union activities until 1980. Fitzsimmons had guaranteed his own tenure in office until he could retire (he died before that date).

When Hoffa discovered this double-dealing trick he was furious, but he could not do much about it--until Congress passed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. Gerald Ford was now president and William Usery was the secretary of labor. The Act gave the U. S. Labor Department new powers to investigate union pension corruption, and a task force was created to go after the Teamster's Union and Frank Fitzsimmons. The task force was able to get to Hoffa, and they reached an accord. In exchange for solid information about how the loans to the Dunes worked, and how the union participated in the"skimming" of casino profits, Hoffa would win a full pardon allowing him to take over union office whenever he was elected. The singing began, but the song hit a sour note on July 31, 1975. Jimmy Hoffa disappeared. Wanna bet his body lies buried beneath the Bellagio Casino and resort--probably below its nine acre lake and the fountains? It is what we do with history--bury it.

In Las Vegas we don't want history. History is about losers. We only want winners. And every loser can be a winner on the next roll, the next pull of a handle, or the next turn of a card--and that next event is in the future not the past.

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