Las Vegas Sun

December 19, 2018

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Of course I wish I’d walked him to his room.’

If only he'd walked him to his hotel room, none of this would have happened.

If only Sig Rogich, who has counseled presidents and governors and the champ, had taken the 2 1/2-minute walk with Rep. Jim Gibbons from that bar to his room at the Marriott, Gibbons never would have run into a tipsy woman and offered to walk her to her truck.

It must be maddening.

"Of course I wish I'd walked him to his room," he said in an interview.

Both here and in Washington, among those who matter, just say the name Sig and they'll know who you're talking about. After Sig Rogich created his own advertising firm and came to dominate Nevada politics, Sen. Paul Laxalt introduced him to Ronald Reagan.

He became a national political player, an image master known for his sharp intelligence and flawless political instincts. Rogich can deliver good press, but just as important, keep a client out of the media when its ravens are circling around an ugly story.

Which makes the previous 10 days of the race for governor that much stranger.

Rogich had dinner with Gibbons and some supporters at McCormick & Schmick's two Fridays ago. After dinner, they went into the bar to wait out a rainstorm. There, they were eventually joined by four women.

Drinking in public with four women. Big bar tab. Camera phones clicking. Uh-oh.

Rogich walked the candidate to the door, and he said he saw him go toward the hotel, a few hundred feet away. That's the last he saw of him.

What happened next is in dispute. One of the women who had been sitting with Gibbons and Rogich accused Gibbons of assaulting her in a parking garage. Gibbons said he was just walking her to her truck, and that she slipped, and he kept her from falling.

Suddenly, Gibbons was in urgent need of Rogich's image skills.

Rogich kept Gibbons publicly silent on the incident, while he tried to dissuade reporters from pursuing the story. He challenged the woman's credibility and said she repudiated her own story. He called it an innocent encounter and said anyone who knows Gibbons would realize the story is preposterous. He wasn't always accurate, but that hardly matters in the spin game.

Once the police department released its reports, there was little he could do except have Gibbons stand with his wife, declare his innocence while noting his military career, and then have him hire a lawyer who also happens to represent the city's biggest media figures and institutions.

Smart play, but hardly unexpected from Sig Rogich.

Rogich, 62, was born in Iceland and arrived here when he was 5. He's a creature of the Cold War, his worldview shaped by what he called "the great Communist menace." It was Republicans who would deliver the country from that evil, he believed.

He worked for Laxalt while in college at UNR. He was also editor of the student paper and worked his way through school at the CBS affiliate. There, he learned TV production.

Back in Las Vegas in the 1970s, he formed his own advertising firm and worked obsessively.

One year, he said, he ran the messaging - the advertising, the speechwriting, the direct mail - for 17 races, including county commission, attorney general and sheriff.

He won them all.

"He has an incredible capacity to persuade, energize, motivate," said Billy Vassiliadis, his friend who eventually bought Rogich's advertising firm. "Still, after all these years, he has the ability to be enthusiastic, generate enthusiasm and be the guy."

In 1984, Rogich directed what was known as the Tuesday Team, Reagan's 1984 dream team of advertising pros, which included legends Hal Riney and Phil Dusenberry. It was one of the best campaigns ever run, and Reagan won in a landslide.

Rogich encouraged the campaign to include then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in some of the '84 spots.

Bush chose him to lead his 1988 advertising effort. It was a campaign infamous for its negative ads. When voters went to the polls, they surely had an image of the Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, in a tank, his goofy helmet bobbing up and down. That was Rogich.

He was a senior adviser in the Bush White House, and then ambassador to his native Iceland.

He was called back in August 1992 to run the presidential advertising campaign. His recollection of it is indicative of his long memory, fierce competitiveness and pride:

"We were down 21. We whittled it down to 3 on the last weekend." He still blames the Iran-Contra special prosecutor, who indicted Reagan's Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger at the end of the campaign, which he says stalled Bush's momentum.

When he returned to Nevada, he sold R&R Partners and essentially retired. He buried himself in books. But he was going crazy, he said, so he started a little office.

People came to him.

One specialty: crisis management.

"Ironic, isn't it?" he said dryly.

One client: Mike Tyson. "You'll take responsibility," he said to Tyson after his biting incident.

His new firm grew and he became active in local charitable causes, but he continued to consult on campaigns, including those of Gov. Kenny Guinn and Sheriff Bill Young.

His interest?

"Winning."

Today, the Gibbons fiasco has led to snickering and bafflement among some in Nevada's political class, no doubt a tad jealous of Rogich's success.

Steve Wark, a longtime Republican consultant, said Rogich seems to have broken a basic rule of campaign management in the Gibbons episode: Never leave the candidate.

Dan Burdish, former executive director of the Nevada Republican Party, said the whole thing sounds fantastical: "He's extremely capable and extremely smart, and he knows that if anybody saw his candidate staggering to his hotel room, it'd be bad for the candidate."

Vassiliadis defended his friend : "I don't think a 61-year-old man who wants to be governor should have to be told to go home alone."

Rogich became ruminative at the end of a long interview recently, lamenting the fate of American society, our corrosive politics and tabloid culture. It was an odd stream-of-consciousness for a man who has been at the center of those very corrosive politics and has managed image in that tabloid culture for so long.

Perhaps it's an indication that he has had enough, and maybe the aftermath of the Gibbons incident has pushed him to the edge.

Rogich, who has two adult children and two young children, said he longs for the American past, when our politics were collegial, and the culture whole. His sentiments may be illusory, but he sounded genuine in his belief.

"Nothing's sacred anymore, and that's a shame."

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