It was during the 1964 presidential campaign, when I was a law student at the University of California-Berkeley, that I first became aware of Ronald Reagan as a political figure rather than just as a movie star.
The Republican National Convention took place that year at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Reagan’s famous speech on behalf of the presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, was riveting and put him on the national political scene. Following Goldwater’s defeat, Reagan began a series of national radio addresses. When I began my law practice in Reno, I would listen to his morning program and was tremendously impressed by his political philosophy and conservative approach to solving our national problems.
My first face-to-face meeting with Reagan took place in the late 1960s, when he was governor of California and my friend Paul Laxalt was governor of Nevada. They were meeting to work out an agreement between the two states to save Lake Tahoe.
During the 1970s I met Reagan again on a number of occasions as the Nevada state Republican chairman and member of the Republican National Committee. I served as a floor leader for him at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit, working with then-U.S. senator Paul Laxalt, who was Reagan’s campaign chairman. Reagan, of course, won a landslide victory that year over President Jimmy Carter.
Two years later, following a White House breakfast meeting in November 1982 with then-president Reagan, I was asked to become chairman of the Republican National Committee and was formally elected and took office the following January. During my six years as chairman (I retired when Reagan left office), I had almost weekly contact with the president, either campaigning with him on Air Force One, meeting in the cabinet room with congressional leaders, or hosting social events at the White House for Republican Party constituents.
During the mid-1980s I was traveling with the president on a campaign trip across the country, and we were scheduled to overnight in Las Vegas, with our arrival at McCarran Airport around midnight. About a half-hour before we were to land, the president came back to where I was sitting on Air Force One and invited me to ride with him in the presidential limousine. Despite the late hour, there was a scattering of people lining the roadway to greet the president as we drove down Paradise Road toward The Strip and our hotel. As we approached a well-known strip club, we noticed, to our surprise, a number of “the girls” standing on the hoods of cars, waving to the president. As we got closer, two of the girls ripped off their halter tops and waved them over their heads, yelling, “We love you, President Reagan!” The president immediately broke into that wonderful, sheepish grin of his, waved back at the girls and turned to me and said, “Well, Frank, that’s a real Las Vegas welcome.” For years afterward, when we were alone, he’d often say, “Frank, do you remember that great trip to Las Vegas where we had that special welcome?” There was always that glimmer of fun in his eyes.
Reagan loved Nevada and was extremely knowledgeable about the gaming industry. He actually played Nevada hotel-casinos in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but nobody recalls whether he had a song and dance act or told jokes. He was a strong advocate of states’ rights and believed that every state had the right, like Nevada, to legalize gaming if that was their choice. Throughout the years, he and Nancy spent a great deal of time in Nevada, both in the Las Vegas area as well as in the Reno/Carson City/Lake Tahoe area in the north.
Ronald Reagan, along with Margaret Thatcher, who I also got to know well during my tenure as party chairman, had a tremendous impact not only on my political philosophy and approach to problem solving but in my approach to leadership. President Reagan was a strong, consistent leader who realized that it was necessary to create and cultivate coalitions in order to accomplish your goals. That was the secret to much of his legislative, diplomatic and electoral success. In two presidential elections, he carried 93 of 100 possible states.
I have always attempted to emulate him in my role as president and CEO of the American Gaming Association (AGA). I realize that our industry is a contentious one with strong opponents that cut across political lines. We at the AGA attempt to develop coalitions and promote education of other groups to assist us in protecting the interests of our industry.
On June 9, Nancy Reagan invited about 100 of us to a private reception in the Capitol, just adjacent to the rotunda. After the formal ceremony had concluded, we were escorted into the rotunda to pay our respects before the general public was allowed in. As I stood before his casket, I silently thanked him for his personal kindnesses to me and my family over the years and, more importantly, for having restored the dignity and pride of the American people through his leadership, dedication and love of this great country.