Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Remembering Senator Bill Raggio on His Birthday

Travelers arriving at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport invariably pass by the bronze bust of Senator William J. Raggio, smiling back at them from a pedestal behind a velvet cord.  Raised lettering on the wall behind the bust proclaims him to be “Father of the Airport Authority.” Raggio’s success in establishing that governmental entity, which broke the stranglehold of longtime, local monopolies, revolutionized the tourist industry in northern Nevada, but was just one of his many significant accomplishments in shaping the State.     

William John Raggio, Jr. was born in Reno, then the picturesque “City of Trembling Leaves,” in a small Vine Street maternity cottage on October 30, 1926—just a few hours short of Nevada Day.  He was a fourth-generation Nevadan and descendant of immigrants from northern Italy who had arrived penniless; but, by hard work and thrift, saved enough to become successful landowners. These values, along with an abiding respect for the country that provided them such a golden opportunity, were passed along and instilled in Bill, whetted through the Great Depression and a World War that encompassed his early life.

By the 1960’s, Raggio was nationally recognized as a brilliant and gutsy district attorney, fighting endemic corruption in the local city government and police department, and personally prosecuting some of the most heinous crimes ever committed in Nevada.   But all of this came at a personal cost, with the lives of Bill and his family disrupted by threats of violence to the point where trusted police sentries kept watch, often for weeks at a time, on the Raggio home each night and often escorted his three children to school for their protection. 

After an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, Bill Raggio was elected to the Nevada State Senate in 1972.  Once there, he spent long hours learning his job, impressing colleagues with his dedication and work ethic, and was soon chosen as Senate Minority Floor Leader. As a member of the Senate Committee on Finance, Bill carefully studied the intricacies of the state budget and became widely admired for his prodigious intellect and extraordinary retention, even among those who did not share his conservative political views. 

In 1987, when Republicans won a majority in the Senate, Bill became Floor Leader and Chair of the Finance Committee, guiding that governing body over most of the next two decades with a willingness to listen and consider the needs and opinions of others. His charisma, patience and sense of fairness—balanced, when he felt it necessary, with an intimidating presence and an occasional calculated fit of temper—steered colleagues to acceptable compromises and kept the Legislature functioning. 

Bill’s longevity in these legislative posts was all the more remarkable because of the dramatic political power shift during his tenure to Clark County. Despite southern Nevada legislators comprising a significant majority of seats in the Senate, northerner Bill kept his leadership position largely due to his cleverness and experience, which allowed him to play the political game like an accomplished chess master—always several moves ahead of his rivals. During this time, he often was referred to, by both admirers and critics alike, as "Nevada's Shadow Governor."

Of all Senator Raggio’s accomplishments, he was most proud of his prominent role in the creation and passage of the Nevada Education Reform Act, one of the most complex and controversial pieces of legislation ever to challenge state lawmakers. Yet, he was able to lead them though that maze with his encyclopedic knowledge and talent for synthesizing a discussion down to its essence.

He was also an ardent supporter of Nevada’s colleges and universities. Students at the University of Nevada, Reno, campus are reminded of this daily by the looming presence of the William J. Raggio College of Education Building.  In Clark County, his contribution as an outstanding role model for those entering the legal profession is seen in his name on the largest classroom facility at the Boyd School of Law. 

As a life-long Republican, Senator Raggio was dedicated to maintaining low taxes, but understood that circumstances change and increases were sometimes necessary. During the 2003 legislative session, he was challenged by, what he termed, “far right” conservatives within the Senate’s Republican caucus. This split was largely the result of his decision to join Republican Governor Kenny Guinn, and over two-thirds of the Legislature, in voting for a tax increase to keep Nevada schools open. It was a tough choice, Bill later said, but necessary because Nevada’s children deserved teachers, books, and decent classrooms “like those of us who had come before.”

This internal political rift widened and, during the 2008 Republican primary election, the Tea Party faction ran their own candidate in a heated, but ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to oust the incumbent Raggio. Rather than discounting these challenges, Senator Raggio embraced them as an opportunity to remind his fellow lawmakers that they were elected “not just to serve Republican or Democrat constituents, but in the best interest of all the people of Nevada,” and that inflexible political positions, pledges, and narrow, overly-simplistic answers for solving the broad and complex issues facing the State, were an abdication of their duty to thoughtfully vet information, and make informed decisions.      

During the 2010 election for Nevada’s U.S. Senate seat, Bill was among more than two hundred prominent Nevada Republicans to endorse Democratic Senator Harry Reid against his Tea Party opponent. Nevertheless, Bill became the lightning rod for ire when Reid won reelection. Two weeks later, the Republican Senate Caucus stripped Raggio of his leadership position. On January 5, 2011, Senator Raggio announced the end of his 56-year-long career in public service.

From presidents and other luminaries in the political, legal and business world, to sports figures and entertainers, including his warm personal friendship with Frank Sinatra, Bill Raggio seemed larger than life. And no legislator in the annals of Nevada history left a larger footprint on the political landscape.  A product of the old school of Nevada politics, Bill was never an ideologue; but rather a pragmatist who recognized early on in his political life that compromise was not an act of betrayal or surrender, but the only way to achieve results in the legislative process. For Bill Raggio, integrity, courage and compassion were not merely worthy and attainable virtues, but essential to the healthy governance of Nevada and our nation.  

On New Year’s Day 2011, just a year before his death from a respiratory illness, eighty-four-year-old Raggio reflected on his life: “There are very few things I would have done differently, even now knowing the consequences, but I have always tried to keep my word on things that I believed. I am honored and privileged to have had the sustained support of my constituents, and must acknowledge that it’s been a great ride.” 

Happy 92nd birthday, Senator. It was a great ride for us, too.
              

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Two Blasts (literally) From the Past



I have recently been in touch with a Gunpowder Prince reader, former Marine Sergeant Steve McCullough, who was an intelligence analyst  in the Khe Sanh COC (Combat Operations Center) bunker after I left there on April 18, 1968.  

Twenty-year-old Steve arrived at Khe Sanh on April 30, from the 3rd Marine Division HQ in Dong Ha, and occupied the main map room where Colonel Lownds and his regimental staff had spent their nights and days plotting defensive strategy during the siege, as described in The Long Goodbye. When he first walked into the room, Steve was surprised to see a large hole in the far-right corner of the wall on which the map hung. He described it as about six feet in diameter and loosely covered with a large tarp on the outside to keep the rain out. He soon watched as a fellow Marine, who evidently did not want to go down to the exit at the end of the main bunker's corridor, walk up through the hole on a fairly gradual incline of loose debris from the explosion that had created it,  then lift the tarp and walk outside.

Steve was told that a large enemy artillery shell struck the bunker roof at that spot a few days before he arrived, but never learned if there were casualties. Steve would work in the bunker each day for about a month, and later found The Gunpowder Prince particularly interesting because he had already known about Captain Baig by reputation before going to Khe Sanh, and was now thrilled to be using Baig’s exact same target intelligence map.

In that book I set out several reasons why a numerically superior force that the North Vietnamese (NVA) had surrounding us, armed with such sophisticated weaponry, was unable to capture the Khe Sanh Combat Base, despite repeated efforts. One salient fact was their failure to knock out our command bunker. The NVA knew the exact location of the command bunker as soon as it had been completed in January 1966, and had tried to knock it out hundreds of times over the next two years with an array of guns, large mortars and rockets. In fact, just a few moments into the 1968 battle, on the morning of January 21, NVA gunners inflicted significant damage on the bunker when a shell blew off a corner of the roof and cracked some exterior walls.

Conversely, in his strategy against the NVA, Marine target intelligence officer Captain Harry Baig understood how crucial it was, early on, to use concentrated artillery fire and bombs to eliminate high-level officers and their staffs, crippling their chains-of-command and leaving their forces disorganized and ineffective.

So, it is hard to understand why the NVA didn’t better exploit this opportunity; not finding the mark again, after the January 21st near-direct hit, until an inexplicable thirteen weeks later---well after the siege had ended---with a large, ground-penetrating artillery shell that blasted a huge hole right through part of the big tactical map used by Colonel Lownds and his staff— now too late to make a difference. 




Photo Caption: This is a photo  of Colonel Lownds during the siege, sitting in a lawn chair facing the big map about ten feet directly in front of him. If the artillery round that blew through the map wall in late April, had, instead, struck in late January or early February on a night he was sitting there, Lownds would almost certainly have been killed. An NVA attack in conjunction with the disorganization caused by this sudden  disruption in the chain of command at Khe Sanh (which they would have noticed by the immediate radio silence coming from that bunker), would have appreciably increased their chances of success in capturing the place. Timing, as they say, being everything.  



The other “Blast from the past” 
(that you might find amusing):
I suffered an attack of vertigo a couple of weeks ago, and was hospitalized overnight for tests, as kind of a stroke protocol. They gave me a chest x-ray, heart/liver sonogram, CAT scan, EKG, MRI, etc. Everything came out okay, so they finally determined it to be a fairly common inner-ear problem that I can control by doing certain exercises each morning to keep those pesky calcium crystals floating properly in my ear canals.

Anyway, when I came out of the tube after an MRI of my brain, the technician showed me something on his screen that was pretty interesting. Apparently, I have a small piece of shrapnel embedded in my skull, up on the left side of my forehead. Don’t recall ever being hit by anything at Khe Sanh, but evidently I was, and so must’ve had a really nice adrenaline rush going on at that moment not to feel it.  


Photo Caption:
I noticed in this picture that I seem to have liked tilting my helmet back on my head (I was evidently a fashion pioneer in the “strapless” [as in chin strap] look 😉), the effect being that I exposed my forehead just where the MRI tech said that bit of shrapnel is located.  


*****

NOTE: In late May, Steve McCullough was bitten by a rat while sleeping and medevaced out of Khe Sanh for precautionary rabies inoculations. I found Steve's later work with the 11th ITT (Interrogation Translation Team) in Vietnam  to be quite interesting and am including here, with his permission, some observations about the POWs he interrogated:

"On the subject of interrogations, as you know, we were all trained that, if captured by the enemy, we were to give name, rank, and serial number. I do not believe that NVA were given this training because they willingly gave up information during interrogations. I did not keep count but I probably interrogated close to 100 NVA and Viet Cong PW’s at the Combined Interrogation Center in Da Nang and in field operations and, not once did I ever use coercive measures to get the information I needed. PW’s had an average age of about 16 (younger for Viet Cong) and most had a very limited education, which I also believe contributed to their willingness to talk. Many were not fighting willingly. And, for the record, I never witnessed PW abuse by any American interrogators. I did witness water boarding of a PW one time but that was conducted by ARVN interrogators – not Americans. I was attached to the 26th Marines several times and received the Navy Unit Commendation Medal for one of the operations with the 26th Marines. Being able to provide intelligence information gained from interrogations was critical during the course of an ongoing operation and many times PW’s provided this information willingly. I also received the Bronze Star with “V” for information I was able to obtain which, ultimately, saved many Marines’ lives. Not saying that to brag just to illustrate how critical it was that the enemy gave up important information so readily. In fact, very few people know this but the NVA had planned another attack in Quang Tri province for Tet 1969, a year after the Tet offensive that you experienced first-hand at Khe Sanh. However, a Chieu Hoi defector, who was a Political Officer for one of the NVA divisions which was to participate in the attack, gave us most of the operational details before the attack took place. I sat in on the interrogation conducted by ARVN interrogators and they believed that the attack was called off because the NVA knew that the defector had provided this information to us. I conducted several other interesting interrogations but those stories are for another day. Bottom line is it was rather easy to get information from enemy PW’s." 







  

A Christmas Call to Remember

Twelve years ago , this Christmas Eve, I arrived home from a holiday gathering to find a phone message, one that remains very special to m...

WELCOME!