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Columnist Jon Ralston: Don’t glorify wrongs of the past

Jon Ralston hosts the news discussion program Face to Face on Las Vegas ONE and publishes the Ralston Report. He can be reached at (702) 870-7997 or at [email protected]

WEEKEND EDITION

February 26 - 27, 2005

There is no method to how buildings are christened with people's names in Las Vegas. No other city can have such an edifice complex, with some politicians granted the honor before their terms are up while other putative luminaries have their surnames affixed to buildings simply because they had juice.

Many of these are misdemeanors and hardly worth fussing about, even after names have to be removed because of scandals. But my guess is most Las Vegans don't know that perhaps the single most important building here is named for a man whose career was distinguished by xenophobia and anti-Semitism, a man who destroyed careers and ruined lives, a man who during the McCarthy era was in many ways much more dangerous and insidious than the man for whom the period was named.

It is a crime that the gleaming Southern Nevada airport should be named for Pat McCarran, that the portal through which millions of visitors pour into Las Vegas every year should bear the name of the senator who had a hateful and irrational obsession with outsiders. It is time that someone stepped forward to right this wrong and remove McCarran's name from the airport, erasing it in a way that the stain of his service can never be expunged.

I come to this conclusion after finishing Michael J. Ybarra's towering, devastating biography of the Nevada senator, "Washington Gone Crazy: Sen. Pat McCarran and The Great American Communist Hunt." Ybarra's book is a rich 760 pages of meticulous, painstaking research combined with brilliant contextual analysis. The author exposes how the execrable McCarran was the workhorse in Congress to pass laws that were antithetical to American tenets of liberty while the demagogic Joe McCarthy was the showhorse who dominated the media and the history books.

Ybarra details how this son of illiterate immigrant parents "helped build a legislative wall around the country to keep out immigrants. He bullied and besmirched dedicated public servants and intimidated high government officials into prosecuting them on specious charges. His actions caused people to lose their jobs, sometimes careers, to sit in jails awaiting deportation, to sit in refugee camps, denied entry to the United States."

If the Reno folks can take ex-Sen. Howard Cannon's name off their airport, supposedly to help with tourism, how can we continue to allow ours to be associated with a man as odious as McCarran? It is not only anachronistic; it is a profound embarrassment.

Ybarra has exhumed a painful history that most Nevadans don't know or choose to ignore. But what happened in the past should no longer be in the past.

I know there are those who will protest, who will point to the senator's prodigious pork and surrogate fatherhood to "McCarran's boys," some of whom are fine men. It is always a dicey proposition to measure a man's good works against his bad deeds. But this is not a close call.

For every local boy McCarran helped or federal project he secured, there were thousands of people who were kept out of this country, including Holocaust refugees and others who needed homes after World War II.

McCarran overcame a hardscrabble beginning to preside over the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he acted as a suzerain, demanding loyalty from all who came before him and using his power in amazingly destructive ways.

"At the height of his influence, McCarran was almost wholly a negative force, instinctually and implacably opposed to whoever was in the White House, vindictive to the extreme to anyone who dared cross him and willing to pull down the whole structure of government to satisfy his pique," Ybarra writes.

McCarran entered into an unholy alliance with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, unearthing dirt on people he considered enemies of the state, driving many dedicated foreign service officers out of government, out of the country or even to suicide.

Two years after the airport was named for him in 1948, McCarran helped pass the Internal Security Act. Ybarra called it "the perfect expression of McCarthyism: the greatest peacetime sedition law in the country's history, a marker of a perilous moment in world politics and a shameful departure from the American ideals of law and liberty."

Through that measure and later the McCarran-Walter Act, the Nevada senator seized on the anti-Communist hysteria to push for immigration laws that featured loyalty oaths, concentration camps for refugees and many other proposals that should have caused Lady Liberty to sink into the ocean.

McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee may have garnered most of the attention. But through a tribunal he created called the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, McCarran conducted inquisitions that were nasty and vicious.

Ybarra's biography is more relevant today than ever. While McCarran used Communism to justify his witch hunts, today we have government officials who invoke terrorism to justify their actions. McCarran was the kind of man who would have found the Patriot Act too soft. If he were Judiciary chairman now, he might not have agreed to confirm John Ashcroft because the attorney general didn't go far enough in cracking down on foreigners.

If no one has the courage to start the ball rolling to erase McCarran's name from the airport, perhaps along with those silly voiceovers from entertainers greeting tourists as they arrive, visitors should hear this on the public address system:

"Welcome to McCarran International Airport. The airport is named for a man who hated outsiders and would surely have supported detaining you without probable cause if you looked suspicious. But we love him anyway. Enjoy your stay."

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