Howard Cannon — made unto our own image and likeness

Expanded from the 3-10-2002 Daily Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

In the early 1950s, Sen. Patrick McCarran, D-Nev., tried to destroy the Las Vegas Sun by pushing its major casino advertisers to withdraw from the paper.

At McCarran's sudden death of a heart attack in 1954, Sun publisher Hank Greenspun was surprisingly generous, praising McCarran for standing firm for principles in which he believed.

Greenspun probably made more enemies than McCarran. At his death, commentators showed the same generosity of spirit to the hardbitten newspaperman.

In the past couple of weeks, an unfortunate bit of acrimony has arisen over the naming of several new schools here in Washoe County. Some have been lobbying to name a school after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Others want a school named after Reno police officer John Bohach, who was gunned down in the line of duty last summer.

Disparaging remarks have been uttered about both worthy men. These waters need calming.

In such a situation, while never shading the truth, we should concentrate on the big picture and ask the great question: What were the large and lasting accomplishments of this person's life? Even the humblest person has at times approached greatness.

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Which brings me to former U.S. Sen. Howard W. Cannon, D-Nev., who died in Las Vegas last week at 90.

I met him on only three or four occasions. He stood about five-feet, six-inches or thereabouts, but his public image was rightly much larger.

The only time I ever spent with him involved taping some endorsement commercials 30 years ago. I found the mighty senator and major general both personable and patient.

Most media retrospectives, at least those here in northern Nevada, were incredibly vapid. Some noted he was a war hero but gave no other details. Cannon held general's stars in the U.S. Air Force and came out of WWII with medals enough for a dozen men.

He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958 after serving as Las Vegas city attorney. Just decade or so later, Nevada's two senators, Cannon and Alan Bible, D-Nev., were praised for their quiet effectiveness in Washington.

Both Bible and Cannon exhibited a southern good-ole-boy demeanor when greeting the public. It was both anachronistic and charming. While the breath of scandal never touched Bible, the same could not be said for the likes of McCarran, Cannon or Bible's successor, Paul Laxalt, R-Nev.

In Cannon's case, history should judge him kindly. I know firsthand what politics does to the idealistic. The principle-besotted crusader soon finds that others have very valid if contrasting or opposing points of view. If you would represent the people, you must represent them all, whether you agree with them or not.

This quickly extinguishes the flames of firebrands and turns officeholders into -- gasp -- compromisers. It also turns the good ones into capable and effective public servants.

Howard Cannon, a farm boy from Utah whose first job was delivering newspapers on horseback, served at a time when his constituents were very needy. Many of those constituents weren't people of the best reputation elsewhere. The emerging economic powerhouse of Las Vegas was largely shaped by men who could not speak proper English and whom you wouldn't want seen with your daughter.

But they provided the industry and the jobs which kept this backwater state from sliding back into the boom-and-bust oblivion of its mining days.

Cannon went to his grave with four great claims to fame. On the national level, he pushed trucking and airline deregulation into law, with all the good and bad those changes have brought. He also facilitated the southern Nevada water project, without which Gomorrah South would be a dust bowl today.

His most important accomplishment came at the end of his first term when he cast the key vote to break a southern filibuster in the senate. Cannon's courageous action allowed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 to pass.

It almost cost him his seat here in Mississippi West. Laxalt came within 48 votes of beating him that November.

A recent poll of historians ranked the greatest presidents. Those who stood out on the issue of race made the top 10. By that standard, Howard Cannon died a giant.

Cannon brought home millions of federal dollars to Nevada, expanding the air travel which fuels our tourist economy and the military air base expansion which continues apace. Tourism may be our number one employer, but the federal government remains in second place, largely due to the efforts of Maj. Gen. Howard Cannon.

His greatest heartbreak came when his name was removed from the Reno aiport. Reno Cannon International was changed to Reno-Tahoe International a few years back. It was the height of hypocrisy.

Narrow-minded Reno business brahmins had for decades fought giving any exposure to Lake Tahoe, considering it a competitor. That began to change with the drought of 1977 when the casino overlords started to figure out that daytime skiers were also night time gamblers.

Greenspun opposed changing the Reno airport's name. If Las Vegas can name its airport after a corrupt senator (McCarran), he groused, why can't Reno have the same?

The superficial news coverage in the north delivered the impression that we almost wanted to give Howard Cannon short shrift. Sometimes, it's too embarrassing to look at yourself in the mirror. He was what we made him. He did what we asked him to do. He helped make us a modern state.

Had we retained him for fifth term in 1982, Nevada never would have been targeted as a nuclear waste dump.

As with Dr. King and Sen. McCarran, Howard Cannon should be viewed in the full scope of history, the good and the bad, leaving nothing out. But the magnitude of his positive accomplishments dwarfs any very human shortcomings.

Judge tenderly of Howard Cannon. He was exactly what we made him, created unto our own image and likeness.

We are the richer for his having passed this way.

Be well. Raise hell. | U-News | C.O.P. | Sen. Joe Neal
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© 2002 Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a 33-year Nevadan, a member Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of and He hosts Deciding Factors on several Nevada television stations. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks (Nev.)Tribune since 1988.

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