“I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em,” said Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt. While Plunkitt was referring to what he called “honest graft,” his legendary statement is apt for the antics of Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. Goodman, whose city is teetering on the brink of economic collapse, seized on a remark by President Obama and used it to launch himself and his city into the national limelight.
“You can’t get corporate jets, you can’t go take a trip to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl on the taxpayer’s dime,” Obama said on Monday in Elkhart, Indiana, chastising bailed out banks for their outlandishly expensive boondoggle vacations. The remark came on the heels of the withdrawal by Wells Fargo—the San Francisco-based banking giant that received $25 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program—from a planned 12-day junket to Las Vegas, and prompted Goldman Sachs (recipient of $10 billion in TARP money) to back out of a three-day conference at Mandalay Bay, incurring a $600,000 cancellation fee.
“Las Vegas wants to be taken seriously but it also wants tourists to think almost anything goes.”
Furious, Mayor Goodman heatedly demanded that the president apologize to the city. “That’s outrageous and he owes us an apology,” Goodman railed, landing face-time on CNN and making headlines nationwide. Obama didn’t really single out Las Vegas so much as clearly direct his criticism toward companies squandering taxpayer money. But that’s beside the point. Goodman, known for cavorting with showgirls and appearing in martini ads to gin up business for the city, “seen” his opportunities.
The man who calls himself the “world’s happiest mayor” is the city’s unabashed shill who will do or say anything to bring revenue to his much beloved and beleaguered Las Vegas. With his own colorful past as a criminal defense attorney for the Mob, he is smart, calculating, and crazy as a fox. “If I were Oscar Goodman I’d do exactly what he’s doing: making a mountain out of a molehill,” said Michael Green, professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada. “Las Vegas is actually a better meeting place than most possible locations. What Obama said is true: there shouldn’t be junkets on taxpayer money. He didn’t say there was anything wrong with Las Vegas. He compared Las Vegas with a trip to the Super Bowl. Las Vegas ought to be thrilled that its ad campaign is working.”
Indeed, Goodman’s city is in dire straits, with home foreclosures topping those in the nation and the number of tourists falling by 4.4 percent in the past year. And the mayor’s pet project for federal stimulus money—$50 million for a museum devoted to America’s Mafia families and the FBI agents who pursued them—was attacked as typical pork and removed from the final package. Before riding Obama’s comment, his hobbyhorse was legalization of prostitution.
Even hometown boy Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, grabbed the chance for boosterism, responding to Goodman’s remarks on the floor of the U.S. Senate. “The president knows that Las Vegas is America’s premiere destination to do business,” Reid told his colleagues. “The city has more than 140,000 hotel rooms—more than anyplace in the world—with an average daily rate of $114 a night.” To underscore Obama’s commitment to Nevada, which he visited 20 times during the presidential election, Reid announced that the president had just accepted Reid’s invitation to visit the city in the near future.
Reid, who’s had his hands full with the stimulus package, was doubtless expecting accolades for his accomplishments, could not have welcomed Goodman stealing his thunder.
The Las Vegas mayor is widely considered the possible rival for Reid’s son for the Nevada governor’s seat. Nor could Reid have welcomed the attention on “Sin City” as he faces his own re-election campaign next year in which the GOP has vowed to pull out all stops to defeat him. Rumors swirl in Las Vegas that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is in the process of establishing residency in Nevada with his eye toward unseating his fellow Mormon. In any case, the 2010 Senate race is destined to be a vicious battle regardless of the challenger.
For decades Las Vegas has been America’s convenient whipping boy, as politicians from Estes Kefauver to Robert F. Kennedy reaped political mileage for taking it on. As the country’s symbolic capital of greed, corruption, and the worship of money—what author Nick Tosches called “a temple town of the American dream”—Las Vegas has long suffered from an identity crisis. “Las Vegas has always had to deal with being a combination of outlaw and normal community. Obama’s comment, and more than that, the reaction to it, is part of a century-old battle,” according to Green. “Las Vegas wants to be taken seriously but it also wants tourists to think almost anything goes.”
In 1983, the American Bar Association met in Las Vegas and Chief Justice Warren Berger refused to attend, citing the city as an unsuitable place for lawyers to meet. “At first that sounds like the set up line for a lawyer joke,” says Green. “But what better advertising could Las Vegas, the capital of hedonism, get than having the Chief Justice declare us immoral.”
Goodman is just the latest in a long line of politicians navigating the juxtapositions of Las Vegas. As the city’s preeminent newspaper columnist, John L. Smith of the Review Journal, put it: “Mayor Oscar Goodman is being accused in some terribly cynical circles of pulling a political/media stunt in his pursuit of an apology from President Obama for a perceived slight on the delicate image of pristine Las Vegas. They might be right, those cynics. With Goodman, stagecraft and statecraft are Siamese twins.”
For a man who owes his professional stature to defending America’s most sophisticated criminals, Goodman is a master at choosing his battles. A creature of Las Vegas, he knows not to overplay his hand in this high stakes game. A presidential apology seems like a long shot. Better odds would be on Goodman folding his bluff.
Sally Denton is a writer based in Santa Fe and author of six books, including The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America and the forthcoming The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas (Bloomsbury Press).