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Sally Denton and Roger Morris share with you here their own experiences which led up to the writing of THE MONEY AND THE POWER. Sally grew up in Nevada and witnessed as a child the excess of the jeweled city in the desert. Roger's service in the White House led him to see many trails of corruption leading directly to Las Vegas.

 

SALLY DENTON on growing up in the glow of Las Vegas

I never thought I would write about Las Vegas, except as an adjunct to some other story. As a third-generation Nevadan who grew up in the 1960s in Boulder City--a tiny desert community 23 miles southeast of Las Vegas--I viewed the neon city in the distance as a mishmash of bad planning and ostentatious excess.

By stark contrast, my hometown had a wholesomeness and banality at once safe and excruciatingly mundane. The only municipality in the entire state of Nevada with an ordinance against gambling, Boulder City is an oasis of parks and manicured neighborhoods with the wonders of Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, and the Colorado River nearby. Its old-fashioned main street had the requisite movie theater, drug store, Coffee Cup café, hotel, and tavern that boasted it would offer a free drink on any day the sun didn't shine. We prided ourselves on being a town of bureaucrats and respectable small businessmen, of hydrologists and geologists, not gamblers, hucksters, and con men. Yet we knew the rising city in the distance was always something larger, more serious in its mystery and allure than anything in our contained little world.

Left to right (standing): Scott Denton, Red Skelton, Ralph and Sara Denton. (seated) Gail Sawyer, Mark Denton, and Sally Denton at the Riviera Hotel in 1958.

 

 

This was the backdrop of my childhood, and one of the great good fortunes of my life is that I have come to an understanding about the significance and the role in the world of the strange city that lay just beyond our horizon.

I grew up in a very political household, but in Nevada it was politics with a difference. From my earliest memories, there were two larger-than-life men in that setting: my father, Ralph Denton, and his longtime close friend, Grant Sawyer, who traced a dramatic career from the office they shared as young prosecuting attorneys in the small ranching community of Elko in northeastern Nevada to become governor amid often sensational national controversy.

 

Left to right: Presidential candidate Lyndon Johnson during a visit to Las Vegas shaking hands with 7-year-old Sally Denton, 5-year-old Scott Denton, and 9-year-old Mark Denton.

 

I spent much of my childhood on the campaign trail in Nevada--an endless string of parades in the cow counties, of small planes landing on dirt runways lit by the headlights of the towns' Democrats, of union rallies and West Side Las Vegas churches, of rodeos and gambling halls, and dark desert bars inevitably called "Oasis." During those hot dusty days, as Sawyer was facing defeat in reelection as governor and as my father was twice running unsuccessfully for Congress, I saw everywhere that it was a tough world for an honest man. In a child's orbit of turmoil and upheaval, of gin and smoke, joking and polling, speeches and leaflets, I recognized how corrupt the system was by watching these two incorruptible men in it. I was inspired by their example but very much aware of, and repelled by, the enormous forces that were always arrayed against them. Though I always loved Nevada, when I graduated from high school in 1970, I couldn't wait to get away from the place and make a life elsewhere. Still, like so many loyal Nevada kids, I began at the University of Nevada at Reno, its charming old Ivy League-modeled quad only a few blocks from the legendary Virginia Street with its pulsing casinos in what was still advertised as "The Biggest Little City in the World." But I soon went off to finish college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where for a brief time the garish landscape of Las Vegas seemed far away.

Afterward, wherever I went as a journalist and writer, Las Vegas followed me. After a brief stint editing my hometown weekly newspaper, where I was soon fired by the publisher for rather too candid coverage of local politics, I went to work for a small paper in northern New Mexico, the Rio Grande Sun, whose editor and publisher, Bob Trapp, while largely unknown nationally, is one of the authentic legends of integrity and independence in American journalism. Assigned to cover the murder of one young woman, I soon encountered a string of murders that led to a major exposé of drug trafficking in New Mexico implicating individuals at the highest levels of state government and law enforcement, and with unmistakable trails back to Las Vegas. From New Mexico I went to work for the renowned nationally-syndicated columnist Jack Anderson in Washington, D. C., where in much the same way every major story I worked on had inevitable Vegas connections. From the Anderson staff I moved to become a television reporter in Lexington, Kentucky, and there, too, what started as covering the disappearance of a young woman led to one of the biggest stories of my career, involving drug smuggling, gun running, and money laundering, and implicating leading figures in Kentucky politics, a story that is told in my first book, The Bluegrass Conspiracy, and in which, yet again, Las Vegas played a major role. In short, from 1977 to 1995, every significant story I ever covered as a journalist wound back to Las Vegas, including my first collaboration with Roger Morris on drug trafficking and money laundering in Arkansas. Against this background, coming together with Roger and deciding to approach Las Vegas as a prism for the larger story of American corruption over the last half of the 20th century was a natural outcome of my writing career and experience. Because so many trails seemed to lead to Las Vegas, we saw it as richly and ominously symbolic.

Certainly this book combines the unique mix of the perspective of a national historian and presidential biographer with that of an investigative journalist. But I hope that in the end I have brought something more as well. I still hearken back to those cowtown parades, headlight-lit runways, and the memory of men talking in smoky bars. This book is not only an exposé of America's hidden history, of the larger dimensions of money, power, and corruption. It is also very much the story of the people of Nevada, of the flesh-and-blood triumphs and tragedies that have accompanied the historic importance of this much visited, yet still relatively unknown place. I take great pride in having written a book that is true to my heritage and so deeply rooted in my past, a book that never loses sight of the human dimensions of the drama of Las Vegas. That's why The Money and the Power is dedicated in part to the people of the "sweet promised land."

 

ROGER MORRIS on the dark trails to Las Vegas

Two personal experiences--two extraordinary women, really--drew me toward the perspective of The Money and The Power, and particularly to the concept of Las Vegas as a shadow capital of 20th- and 21st-century America.

Growing up in the Midwest I was very close to my maternal grandmother, who as a young widow running a small business in 1920s Kansas City had known firsthand the old Pendergast regime and its classic combine of politics and organized crime. For years she had been forced to pay extortion kickbacks directly to an ambitious county politician and after-hours bagman named Harry Truman (a subject, incidentally, I plan to write about some day). From this rather remarkable grandparent I got a very practical, vividly drawn, and colorfully told understanding of American corruption. It was a candid picture of the profound and pervasive enmeshment of underworld and upperworld, of the real system within the system, and the fundamental reality of American life not truly addressed in academia or in more elevated precincts of government and journalism. I didn't heed or accept her wisdom right away, of course. Through the haze of intellectual pretension, a good deal of ignorance, and the larger cultural complexity, I did not realize until my late 50s just how sadly, sweepingly right she had been all along. The show line, as they used to say on the Strip, is that a Missouri country girl goes to the big city and ends up lighting my way to Vegas. Nothing in this book--no matter how radical or startling or downright unpalatable to my establishment colleagues--will surprise you, grandmama.

The second influence was equally humbling. About almost everything I did in a career of seeming accomplishment and generous recognition--graduate study at Harvard and abroad, service in the White House and National Security Council under two presidents, work on Capitol Hill and the foundation world, investigative journalism in both foreign and domestic affairs, and several books as a political historian and presidential biographer--there was a nagging and growing sense of how much I didn't know, of ultimate points missed and connections left dangling, of the darker, unmarked, unacknowledged trails that always led off from what I was seeing and writing about; trails that pointed, like my grandmother's wisdom, to Las Vegas. It wasn't until after the Clinton book and I came together with Sally--who has been very much my mentor and courageous guide as well as co-author in all this--that I was intellectually open to following those trails, and to accepting what the discovery said about my country, my generation, my own work as a writer. It was Sally who showed me, as a supposedly trained and award-winning historian, much of authentic American history for the first time.

Of our America, as we conclude in the book, Las Vegas is metaphor, symbol, chilling and momentous reflection. Gaining that revelation was a somber yet liberating discovery for me. I hope it'll be the same for our readers.