Paul Laxalt, Senator From Nevada and Reagan Confidant, Dies at 96

Paul D. Laxalt, a former United States senator and governor of Nevada who was chairman of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns and advised him in the White House as a close friend, died on Monday in McLean, Va. He was 96.

His family announced the death.

As governor of Nevada from 1967 to 1971, Mr. Laxalt got to know Reagan, then governor of California, when they worked together to clean up the increasingly polluted Lake Tahoe, which straddles the two states’ border.

He went on to serve as Reagan’s campaign chairman in 1976 and 1980 and as general chairman of the Republican National Committee during the Reagan presidency. In private, as “the first friend” as some in the Washington press corps called him, he continued to address the president as “Ron.”

As a Republican senator from Nevada from 1975 to 1987, Mr. Laxalt was known to be firm in his conservatism but always courteous in conveying it. When he led the unsuccessful 1978 fight against the treaties turning over the Panama Canal to Panama, for example, he did not insult or ridicule the Panamanians, as many of his allies did.

“How could I, as a French Basque?” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2006, recalling his understanding of Panamanians’ feeling that they were oppressed by a big power. Still, he insisted in 1978, “It’s absolutely essential that we retain the canal for security purposes, or else it might become a Russian choke point.”

Paul Dominique Laxalt was born on Aug. 2, 1922, in Carson City, Nevada’s tiny capital, where he attended public schools and was a schoolboy basketball player. He was the oldest of six children of Dominique and Therese (Alpetche) Laxalt, immigrants from the Basque region of France.

His father was a sheepherder who spent months at a time with his flock in the Sierra Nevada while his mother ran a family-owned hotel in Carson City. Trained at the Cordon Bleu, the eminent French culinary school, she was renowned for her cooking at the hotel’s restaurant.

Mr. Laxalt attended Santa Clara University in California before enlisting in the Army in World War II, becoming a medic and seeing combat in the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines. After the war he returned to Santa Clara and, under the G.I. Bill, earned a law degree from the University of Denver in 1949.

In 1946 he married Jackalyn Ross, the daughter of John R. Ross, known as Jack, a lawyer and prominent Republican in northern Nevada who became Mr. Laxalt’s mentor. The marriage ended in divorce in 1972.

The year after getting his law degree, Mr. Laxalt won election as district attorney for Ormsby County, in northwestern Nevada. He never lost a case. But, by his own account, he did not enjoy prosecuting, and he stepped down after one term.

Mr. Laxalt was elected lieutenant governor in 1962. Running for the Senate in 1964 as a supporter of Senator Barry Goldwater and a critic of the federal government, he almost survived that year’s Democratic landslide, led by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He lost to the incumbent, Howard W. Cannon, by 48 votes, but won the governorship two years later.

In that office he stabilized the state’s gambling industry, which was in the grip of organized crime, and developed a system of community colleges.

In 1974, another Democratic year, Mr. Laxalt was the only Republican to take a Democratic Senate seat. (The incumbent Democrat, Alan Bible, had decided to retire.)

After Reagan asked Mr. Laxalt to head his campaign in 1975, Mr. Laxalt had the ticklish job of promoting his candidacy without attacking President Gerald R. Ford, who was seeking the nomination after succeeding to the Oval Office on the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon in 1974. He argued that Ford was not a bad president but that Reagan would be a better one.

In a campaign in which most of the Reagan staff was far younger than the candidate (Reagan turned 65 that February), Mr. Laxalt provided encouragement and counsel as a generational peer. He urged Reagan to discard his note cards and speak from the heart, a tactic that made him a winner in a primary for the first time, in North Carolina, the seventh of the 1976 campaign.

After losing that campaign but winning the nomination in 1980, Reagan took Mr. Laxalt’s advice to debate President Jimmy Carter that fall. Late in his presidency, Reagan chose former Senator Howard H. Baker of Tennessee to be his new chief of staff at Mr. Laxalt’s urging.

But perhaps Mr. Laxalt’s most important service to the president was a trip to the Philippines in 1985 to warn President Ferdinand Marcos that the United States thought he was losing control. That was followed by a telephone conversation on Feb. 25, 1986, in which he persuaded Mr. Marcos to leave office rather than fight a civil war with the backers of Corazon Aquino, who had won an election that Mr. Marcos then stole from her.

“I think we avoided a civil war with one phone call,” Mr. Laxalt said in 2006. “The phone call that persuaded him to get the hell out of town really made the difference. A lot of Filipinos would have died there in Manila that day.”

In that same interview, Mr. Laxalt said his support for Reagan was his “major contribution” to public life.

“I think the way that finally turned out, to have him elected president coming from a clear underdog position, gave me the greatest satisfaction,” he said.

After leaving the Senate, Mr. Laxalt made a brief try at a presidential candidacy in 1987. He later worked in Washington as a lobbyist and lived in McLean.

He is survived by his wife, Carol Laxalt, whom he married in 1976; two sons from his first marriage, John and Kevin; four daughters from his first marriage, Gail Johnson, Sheila Lokan, and Michelle and Kathleen Laxalt; a daughter from his second marriage, Denise Laxalt; two brothers, John and Pete; a sister, Susan Laxalt; 12 grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

One of his grandchildren is Adam Paul Laxalt, the attorney general of Nevada and the state Republican Party’s nominee for governor this year. He was born as a result of an extramarital relationship between Michelle Laxalt and Senator Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, who died at 85 in 2017. His paternity was not acknowledged publicly until 2013.

Mr. Laxalt’s younger brother Robert, who died in 2001, was an accomplished author of more than a dozen books about the West and the Basque region and was credited with founding the University of Nevada Press.

Former Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, whom Mr. Laxalt defeated in 1974 when Mr. Reid was the state’s lieutenant governor, and who succeeded him in the Senate in 1987, later becoming minority leader, said of Mr. Laxalt in a telephone interview in 2006, “We have been political adversaries all my adult life, but he and I are friends.”

Though they disagreed on many policy issues, Mr. Reid added, he viewed Mr. Laxalt as a man of utmost integrity in the Senate.

“If Ronald Reagan needed honest advice,” he said, “he went to Paul.”

Sandra E. Garcia contributed reporting.