CHRIS MORRIS / SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010 | 2 a.m.
Obama's remark about Las Vegas
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Here we go again — time to crank up the outrage machine.
For the second time in less than a year, President Barack Obama made an offhand swipe at Las Vegas.
Last time, he said there should be no Vegas junkets for banks that had received government bailout money.
That was bad enough. But Tuesday, at a New Hampshire town hall, he added insult to injury, implying that Las Vegas is a place of profligacy.
“When times are tough, you tighten your belts,” he said.
“You don’t go buying a boat when you can barely pay your mortgage,” a lesson lost on untold Las Vegans last decade. “You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college. You prioritize. You make tough choices. And it’s time your government did the same.”
Nevermind that Obama made his remarks defending a budget that will saddle future Americans with $1.5 trillion of debt. The real outrage? Suggesting that blowing money in Vegas instead of saving for college is a bad idea.
Here is where Las Vegas and the rest of the country part ways: We’ve built an entire industry, indeed, an entire city, around out-of-towners blowing their discretionary income, and lately they have less of it, and are less eager to part with it.
Nevada’s elected representatives responded quickly and forcefully to Obama’s remarks, pumping out news releases and sound bites like Model T’s from a 1920s Ford plant.
“The president needs to lay off Las Vegas and stop making it the poster child for where people shouldn’t be spending their money,” said Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader who has been tasked with shepherding Obama’s agenda on Capitol Hill.
“How dare he insult any American city,” scolded Gov. Jim Gibbons before meeting with Nevada school superintendents in Carson City to tell them to expect 10 percent budget cuts. “I’m writing a letter to him today telling him to tone down or temper his remarks about Las Vegas. This is another slap in the face of the hardworking families in Nevada.”
When the story broke on the Web, the press secretary for one Nevada member of Congress double-checked to make sure the Sun had received his release expressing shocked outrage.
Not to worry. Reps. Shelley Berkley, Dina Titus and Dean Heller: All satisfactorily outraged.
Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who once extolled the joys of gin to some fourth-graders and defended the likes of mobster thug Tony Spilotro in court, said Obama is no friend of Las Vegas and has “psychological hangups” about our city.
The mayor said he would “give him the boot back to Washington to visit his failures back there” and called Obama “a real slow learner.”
If Obama didn’t have hang-ups about Las Vegas before, he will now.
After cleaning up his mess last spring by saying “(T)here’s nothing like a quick trip to Vegas in the middle of the week,” Obama had to grovel again Tuesday, no doubt after an angry call from Reid.
The president has a subtle sense of humor and has always chafed at some of the more absurd rituals of politics, like, say, having to apologize for suggesting that people saving for college shouldn’t be blowing money on Vegas.
His letter to Reid on Tuesday had the tone of a schoolchild caught eating paste or making fun of a portly cousin:
“I hope you know that during my Town Hall today, I wasn’t saying anything negative about Las Vegas. I was making the simple point that families use vacation dollars, not college tuition money, to have fun. There is no better place to have fun than Vegas, one of our country’s great destinations. I have always enjoyed my visits, look forward to visiting in a few weeks, and hope folks will visit in record numbers this year.”
Not an apology, exactly, but a pretty nice endorsement.
At this rate, by the time he’s finished with his presidency, Obama could be a full-time pitchman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
(Before the non-apology endorsement, the LVCVA put out its own statement of gentle protest.)
What’s missing here is a fundamental truth of human experience: We never appear to others as we appear to ourselves.
“When people ask where you’re from and you say, ‘Las Vegas,’ people’s eyes light up,” says Bo Bernhard, a lifelong Nevadan who studies and teaches the sociology of gambling and Las Vegas at UNLV. “It conjures up the same imagery: A passion for consumption, fun and entertainment and using your money to achieve all that.”
Southern Nevadans, most of whom live normal, suburban lives, may sometimes forget how the rest of the country views us — there’s the prostitution, which they mistakenly think is legal, the gambling, the 24-hour partying.
Seen in this light, Obama’s remark is barely controversial, a typical throwaway line that will evince yawns among most Americans.
Bernhard said he always asks his students the reaction they get when they tell friends and family in other places that they go to UNLV; the students react passionately, he said, sharing their experiences of friends and relatives mocking the notion of serious intellectual inquiry in Las Vegas.
“I’ve lectured on six continents, and it’s remarkable the degree to which that reputation is pervasive, in part because we sold it,” he said.
Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report, pondered the political fallout. The remark was bad for Reid because his re-election message is that his influence and proximity to the White House will help Nevada, but then Obama goes and steps on his feet.
As for Obama, it won’t amount to much, Duffy said.
In the politics business, there’s a saying, she quipped, “Stereotypes exist because they’re true.”
“Like it or not, the image of Las Vegas is that of a place you go to have a very self-indulgent vacation. He played a stereotype. It’s not unusual.”
New Yorkers and their banking industry, also struggling to see that the rest of the country views them differently than they view themselves, aren’t happy with their portrayal either, but that won’t stop elected officials from banging away at Wall Street.
Rob Lang, a UNLV sociologist, said Obama is wrongheaded, both on the merits, and the politics.
He notes that in a tough re-election campaign, Obama could need Nevada if a few big states such as Ohio and Florida leave his coalition, as now seems possible. These remarks surely aren’t helping him with voters here, Lang said.
Moreover, Lang said, Obama is incorrect in thinking that Las Vegas is a place of mere indulgence and fun.
Obama should know as much — he was here 20 times during the campaign, almost always off the Strip.
“It’s not a true junket city. It’s not the Caribbean or Santa Barbara,” Lang said of Vegas. “If you’ve been at a giant convention here for electronics or homebuilders or shopping centers, you know this is business, and people are making deals and working hard.”
The beauty of Las Vegas, Lang said, is that conventioneers can leave work and have fun in the evening, rather than being “stuck at the Indianapolis airport Ramada.”
Catch that, Indianapolis?
Sun reporters Dave Toplikar and David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this story.