Hidden Baby

02.21.13

Michelle Laxalt’s Awful Secret: A Baby With Pete Domenici

Michelle Laxalt, a senator’s daughter, had a baby with her dad’s colleague, Pete Domenici—and kept it a secret for more than three decades. Lauren Ashburn on what Laxalt gained by holding out.

Imagine what was going through Michelle Laxalt’s head 30 years ago when a pregnancy test revealed she was going to have a baby out of wedlock—and the father was a rising star in New Mexico politics, Sen. Pete Domenici.

To complicate matters further, her father was another Republican senator, Nevada’s Paul Laxalt, who worked closely with her lover.

Holy guacamole. Now that’s a scandal with a spicy twist.

Michelle Laxalt is now a big-time Washington lobbyist and former Senate staffer who has worked on several presidential campaigns and frequently appeared as a cable news pundit. But at the time, in the late 1970s, she faced a stark series of choices—all equally fraught with their own kind of pain—that could bring shame, and severe political damage, to two prominent Southwestern families.

She could have an abortion, put the baby up for adoption, or become a single mother.

The question of what to do with a pregnancy that results from “one night’s mistake,” as Laxalt calls it, is something women face every day. But three decades ago, with your father’s coworker, in a business in which they are both in the public spotlight?

She had the baby, swore Domenici to secrecy, and lived her life in relative peace as a behind-the-scenes operative—until now.

The outlines of the story emerged Wednesday—with the 80-year-old Domenici, once a Senate powerhouse, saying he is “very sorry for my behavior”—as both of them sent statements to the Albuquerque Journal in the belief that the press was about to reveal what the tabloids would call their love child. Had it not been for the impending leak, no one would be the wiser and this would be one Washington scandal that never made the papers. Instead, it unfolded through carefully manicured releases.

How painful it must have been for both of them to live in fear that this career-ending secret could bubble to the surface while the child’s powerful father was elected term after term to the Senate.

“Given the fact that both my father and the father of my child were United States senators, I felt strongly that I would make this choice according to my values and would not seek advice, input or permission,” Laxalt said.

130220-domenici-love-child-ashburn-embed
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., embraces his wife Nancy, right, as he finishes a press conference in Albuquerque, N.M. in this Oct. 4, 2007 file photo. (Toby Jorrin/AP)

She went a bit far in complaining that “this sacred situation might be twisted…and shopped to press outlets large and small in a vicious attempt to smear, hurt, and diminish Pete Domenici, an honorable man, his extraordinary wife, Nancy, and other innocents.” After all, it’s not a smear if what’s being reported is true.

But how painful it must have been for both of them to live in fear that this career-ending secret could bubble to the surface while the child’s powerful father—also father to eight other children with wife Nancy—was elected term after term to the Senate.

Laxalt gave the baby life, a home, a chance. She allowed Domenici to hold onto his career—no way he could have survived such a revelation—and his family. She saved all of them, and her dad, from enduring months of bruising coverage about sexual misconduct and a fallen politician who had wronged his colleague.

It’s almost as if the secret can be forgiven.

Almost.

Look at what has happened to other politicians with mistresses (and these are just from this century): South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford who said he was hiking the Appalachian trail on vacation and wound up in Argentina with his lover. He is now divorced and begging voters to forgive his transgressions and support him in a House race.

Sen. John Edwards was once a viable contender for the White House until the National Enquirer exposed his affair with campaign aide Rielle Hunter—and obtained photos of him holding their love child—leading to a criminal case that ended in a mistrial on most counts. Nevada Sen. John Ensign resigned after acknowledging an affair with his staffer Cynthia Hampton, the wife of a top aide, leading to an FBI probe after the disclosure that Ensign’s parents had paid her $96,000.

Oh, and you remember Anthony Weiner. And last century’s philanderer in chief, Bill Clinton. Makes you wonder what other pols are holding out on us.

When Michelle Laxalt says her son lived a life “surrounded by love and joy and opportunity,” I’m sure he did. Adam Laxalt is now a 34-year-old Las Vegas lawyer who spent five years in the Navy, including a tour in Iraq, and is a board member of the local Catholic charities. He did, however, battle alcoholism as a teenager, which led to a stint in rehab, according to Washingtonian magazine.

Either he knew about his father and had to keep his mouth shut, or never knew and only recently found out. Either scenario stinks. Either one means someone was living a lie.

And by holding out, Michelle Laxalt was able to cash in her political ties working for the Republican Party, Ronald Reagan, and both George Bushes, and plum jobs at the State Department and AID, to build a highly lucrative practice representing corporations.

Adam Laxalt, for his part, told The Washington Post that “I have lived my entire life as a private citizen and intend to remain one.”

We don’t know whether Domenici, who left the Senate in 2009, had a role in his son’s life, or provided financial support, or whether Michelle had told her parents their secret. What we do know is that Adam Laxalt was given a chance to grow up free from ridicule and out of the glare of the media spotlight to forge a successful legal career.

And he has his mama to thank for that.