Pat McCarran: The Senator from Nevada with a Colorful Reputation

Lauryn Ellis
6 min readJun 20, 2020

The story of Nevada’s history is comprised of some interesting characters. Take Bugsy Siegel, the mobster with a bad temper that is responsible for the Las Vegas Strip. Or Sherriff Ralph Lamb, the man that modernized the Las Vegas Police Department but also had some questionable interrogation tactics, especially by today’s standards. Or his brother, Senator Floyd Lamb, the man who pushed for land conservation but who also punched one of his fellow senators. And then there’s Pat McCarran.

Pat McCarran, a former Democratic senator to Nevada, is one of two people that represent Nevada in the U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall. The senator is remembered for his contributions to the commercial aviation industry, and during his tenure in the Senate, he was a lion for the people of Nevada. But he also had a reputation for being a bully. He used his political power to cut corners and mess with his enemies, and his anti-Semitic views set the foundation of an immigration bill that shaped policy for a decade.

McCarran started out life as a shepherd and a rancher, far away from the halls of Washington. As the only child of Irish immigrant farmers, he would be ten years old before he ever stepped inside a schoolhouse. He still graduated as valedictorian, and he went to college with the intention of going to law school, but his education would be interrupted once again after his father suffered an accident. But it didn’t stop McCarran; he read for the law before passing the Nevada bar in 1905. His clients included an array of those considered to be on the “fringe” of society (an abortionist, accused bank robbers, prostitutes, Mary Pickford), but McCarran didn’t get a law degree to defend people; he got one to make laws and influence people. But his journey to the Beltway would prove to be no easier than the one to get his degree. He lost his first bid for political office, and over the next twenty-five years, he would only win 3 out of 8 offices he ran for.

McCarran finally realized his dream in 1932. He beat the two-term incumbent Tasker Oddie to become Nevada’s junior senator, despite rather lackluster expectations for him at the outset. Oddie wasn’t the worst senator to ever grace the halls of Washington, but he had done little to endear him to Nevadans and after one too many broken promises, re-election looked like less of a sure thing.

Once in office, McCarran found the surest way to accomplish his goals was by railroading …everyone, from his colleagues to the presidents he served under. FDR would never openly campaign against him, but Truman made no secret of his feelings on the senator, especially when it came to McCarran’s immigration bill. This mattered little though to the people of Nevada, and since it didn’t matter to them, it didn’t matter to McCarran. He responded to his constituents’ letters and remembered their names, and the citizens returned his efforts with unwavering loyalty.

One person he couldn’t steam roll was Estes Kefauver. McCarran took great umbrage at the senator from Tennessee for this, and many other reasons. Senator Kefauver opposed McCarran’s immigration bill, something McCarran took great personal offense to. Kefauver was also Ivy-league educated and painted as a “communist” by his critics (which included McCarran). But what the senator hated most of all was Kefauver’s investigation to organized crime. It was well-known secret that the mob had a foothold in Las Vegas, and McCarran feared that the investigation would negatively impact Nevada’s economy. McCarran did his best to interfere, but once it caught national attention, he knew he was playing a losing hand.

Kefauver wasn’t the only senator that McCarran had problems with. He called every liberal Democrat who voted against his immigration act a communist, an accusation which seemed even more heated when it came to liberal Jewish Democrats Hebert Lehman and Eugene Celler. Representative Celler called the measure “thought control”, as did Kefauver. McCarran dismissed them as pro-Communist or anti-American, dismissing their criticisms as petty sniping.

McCarran’s troubles with his fellow senators, and his bullying tactics caught the attention of local newsman Hank Greenspun. Greenspun made no bones about his feelings for McCarran and his comrade Joseph McCarthy, the latter whom Greenspun accused of being a deviant and a homosexual. McCarthy sent the FBI to investigate Greenspun as an intimidation tactic, and when they came up empty-handed, they had no choice but to back off.

This only emboldened Greenspun. He believed he was standing up to the corrupt politicians that were using their power as means of harassment, a claim only bolstered when McCarran tried to step in. McCarran had been the reason so many casinos were getting their gaming licenses, so many owners admitted they felt indebted to him. One by one the casinos started to pull their advertising from the Las Vegas Sun, and Greenspun was livid. He went after the senator in court, and some of the testimony from the mobsters/casino owners in question certainly gave the impression that they were doing it as a favor to McCarran.

For as much of a bully as he was, McCarran was an effective politician. From his first days on the Hill he was on a mission to give Nevada a strong foothold within the federal government and to do that, McCarran recognized the need to diversify Nevada’s economy (which was nothing but casinos and mining at the time). Tourism and commercial aviation proved to be the solution to his problem. His push to separate the Air Force from the Army and the Civil Aeronautics Authority Bill lead to an increase in the number of airports built around the country, including the one in Las Vegas bearing his name.

His ardent desire to get people traveling around the country and to Las Vegas, seemed equally matched by his desire to keep foreign people out of the country.

“He doesn’t want anyone over here who arrived after his parents got to this country.”

The Walter-McCarran Immigration act, also known as The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, would set the tone for American immigration policy for 50s and the 60s, and marked the first time Asian-Americans had a path toward citizenship. This measure by itself got some of McCarran’s fellow senators to champion the bill, but President Truman was unimpressed. He refused to sign it initially, and when it passed its first vote in Congress, he used to veto power to try and stop it but ultimately, the bill passed.

There’s also considerable evidence to suggest that McCarran was an anti-Semite. Research done by local news organizations have turned up documented instances that indicate such; McCarran held up the appointment of Jerome Frank to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, according to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, because Frank was Jewish. He told another Secretary of the Interior to fire a Jewish solicitor-general, otherwise the Secretary would face with budget cuts. Some even contend that his infamous battle with Hank Greenspun had at least some part to do with the fact that Greenspun was Jewish.

Pat McCarran deserves all the credit for what he did for Nevada. He helped shape the state’s economy for over half a century, introduced commercial aviation to Americans and fought tooth and nail to protect his home state’s interests. What more could a public ask for from an elected official? Sure, we could ask for a kinder, more fair-minded man, one that treated everyone fairly, no matter their skin color, religion, or economic background.

But when it comes to politicians (past and present) that’s probably asking too much. And should the day come along when Nevadans can think of someone to replace him in the U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall, I’ll support it. But until then, I’ll settle for remembering him (and other prominent figures of the past) in context.


Washington Gone Crazy: Senator Pat McCarran and the Great American Communist Hunt by Michael J. Ybarra, Copyright 2004.