Nevada's former governor talks politics, family, and how the past is never really past. But an epic journey across generations makes for a good story, which is why his new memoir is called Son of a Gambling Man.
Bob Miller ’67 served as governor of Nevada for a decade—something that he never could have imagined, growing up as he did, the son of a man who once made his living running an illegal bookie joint in Chicago. Miller has just published his autobiography, Son of a Gambling Man: My Journey from a Casino Family to the Governor’s Mansion. President Bill Clinton writes the foreword. While Clinton was president, Miller headed the National Governors Association. Years before, Miller’s work as a district attorney led Ronald Reagan to appoint him to a national taskforce helping victims of crime.
Miller has crafted a compelling, personal tale: about family and hopes and dreams that parents have for their kids, of giving chances to future generations that you never had. What makes this story epic, though, is that it’s also a tale of a city—Las Vegas and how it was transformed from a dusty railroad stop where the Teamsters provided the cash to build casinos—to neon-illuminated Sin City—and then, transformed once more, into a bedazzling metropolis that earned it a new moniker in the 1990s: the All-American City.
The spring Santa Clara Magazine (arriving in May) includes an in-depth feature on Miller. To whet your appetite, here are some video clips and edited excerpts from an interview with Bob Miller, conducted by SCM Editor Steven Boyd Saum.
COMING SOON! Gov. Bob Miller will be in San Francisco for a special presentation and Q&A at the University Club in San Francisco on Tuesday, Apr. 23, 6–8:30 p.m. The talk and reception are hosted by the Harvard Business School Association of Northern California and open to Santa Clara alumni and friends. Register online or call 415-421-4500 for more information.
Not your father's Vegas
Santa Clara Magazine: You found out that your father was moving the family from Chicago to Las Vegas in 1955, when you were a boy of 10. It’s a big moment for your family—and a period of immense transformation of the city, taking off into a new era.
Bob Miller: One of the things that comes through in the book, I hope, is that Las Vegas is the land of second chances. You couldn’t start Las Vegas with people who had gaming experience in a legal jurisdiction, because there wasn’t any. It was the only one. So in order for Las Vegas to grow, you had to have people who had experience, and they all came from some place where it was illegal. My father was among those. Others came from different backgrounds, some more directly in tune with what you might characterize as the underworld—and some on the periphery, or at least having had to deal with it, like my dad. They all came here.
The sheriff at the time was Ralph Lamb, whom I worked for years later. Lamb had the attitude of: Look, you keep your nose clean here, I don’t care about then. I care about now, but you’ve got to be playing by my rules. He spoke highly of my dad as being one of those people he could talk to candidly, and get straight answers from. They got along fine that way.
So it was a rehabilitative type of process. It was also critical: Las Vegas didn’t have conventional financing. We certainly weren’t going to have public corporations at that time, and we weren’t going to have anybody that had any experience. The corporations didn’t come until the 1970s, when Hilton Corporation started taking a look at Las Vegas. It evolved from there; we got into publicly traded corporations and the like.
SCM: In the meantime, your father works his way up from owning a few points …
Miller: The Riviera in my dad’s era was at the top of the heap. The Riviera and the Sands were the two places that had all the famous entertainers. It had the more elegant rooms and a pool and restaurants.
My dad started out as a small-percentage owner. He had a tremendous work ethic. He worked days and nights, and he worked his way up to casino manager and ultimately chairman of the board. He was there until the hotel was sold, and then he left. He and Jay Sarno opened Circus Circus, and he held that until shortly before his death, when he sold his interest and bought a little place in front called the Slots-A-Fun.
In the swim
SCM: The Riviera would bring big names and entertainment. Who were some of the folks that came through when you were working as a lifeguard?
Miller: Probably the most famous is Barbra Streisand. And she was not famous at the time; she was the opening act for Liberace. She was married to Elliot Gould. They were in the swimming pool—and you’ve got to remember, Las Vegas was more conservative than people think it was at the time—and they were basically hugging, kissing a little bit. If you go back to the Mad Men era, that wasn’t socially acceptable.
So we had to tell them, “Please, if you’re going to be kissing and doing these things, go to your room.” Today, if you went and said to somebody, “You’re kissing in the pool, get out of here,” they’d tell you you’re crazy and nobody would even think twice about it, but it was different then.
My dad didn’t want me around celebrities; he didn’t have the highest opinion of a lot of them. You know, you have to pay them a lot of money, and he’d see them carousing after their shows—and he noticed their egos, which he didn’t particularly have. He didn’t want me around that.
Man of his word
SCM: Conversely, there were some things that he very clearly did want for you—and there was a promise he made to the priest who married him and your mother.
Miller: It speaks volumes about my dad and the type of internal discipline that he had and the commitments that he had to things. He lived in a world where your word was your bond. It wasn’t the legal contracts that you have now. If you said it, you did it, period.
A good example was that my mother came from a Catholic family, and she wanted to be married in the Catholic Church. When they went to meet with the priest, the priest indicated to my father—who was Protestant but not even practicing—that he would expect him to raise the children Catholic. My father committed to raising us Catholic, and he took that very seriously.
I went to Catholic grammar school in Chicago. When we came to Las Vegas, there was a Catholic grammar school relatively near where we lived, but at first I couldn’t get in. So my dad didn’t put me in school, up to the point where the truant officer came by and said, “Excuse me—you have to go to a school.” So I enrolled at public school for a short period of time, and then we were able to get into the Catholic school.
The past is not past
SCM: In running for office—from justice of the peace to district attorney for Clark County—you learned some rough-and-tumble lessons in politics. But nothing prepared you for when opponents went after your mother and father. You come out right at the beginning of the book talking about a really difficult moment in 1988, with newspaper stories suggesting connections between you and organized crime.
Miller: We purposely began the book with a story that is really in the middle of my life but reflects how it was and what it was going forward. My father had, in his career in Las Vegas, brought in for training a young man named Carl Thomas. Now, Carl Thomas was a self-made guy. He started as a card dealer in one of the hotels. He’d gone to the university here, he’d gotten a master’s degree. My father met him because my father was president of the Shrine Club, and Carl helped him prepare to give speeches, something he was completely unfamiliar with and unskilled at, and so he came to work for my dad.
My dad passed away in the mid-1970s. Carl Thomas went on his way and rose in the ranks of the gaming world. Shockingly, about the time I first became district attorney, I got a call that indicated that there was a disclosure of some federal wiretaps—and the wiretaps were of reputed organized crime figures in Kansas City, sitting with Carl Thomas, who was telling them how he was helping them skim money from another hotel, the Tropicana Hotel, and then ultimately the Stardust Hotel.
At the beginning of the conversation, Carl Thomas had mentioned that he’d had breakfast with me, because I had just been elected D.A. Obviously, he knew me and he knew my family. When my dad died, Carl was very kind to my mother and went by every day. When all these tapes came out, even the governor and others—the gaming regulars, everybody—was shocked. He seemed to be the epitome of today’s Las Vegas casino executive. It turned out he wasn’t.
He was convicted in one case and then in a second case. He had a plea bargain to reduce the sentence, and he testified against some of the individuals involved, but he did go to prison. Prior to him going to prison, I was contacted by part of his defense team, asking if I would write a letter to the judge, in private, just outlining the person—the side of him that I knew. So I carefully wrote a letter, which was very clear that I was not suggesting leniency, I wasn’t suggesting what the outcome should be. I was definitely not condoning or even understanding why he would have been involved in this—but that I had seen the kind person he had been; that I didn’t ever see any indication of violence on his part, contrary to the people he was hanging around with; and that the judge should know everything to be able to take them into account.
And so the letter was written. Nothing happened for years. One day I got a call from a reporter, who I believe had been prompted by a U.S. senator who was facing re-election against the incumbent governor, and I was lieutenant governor. If the governor defeated the senator, I would become governor, so they wanted to discredit me.
The reporter was asking about this letter, and I made the foolish mistake of initially denying that I had written the letter, because it was supposed to be private. Later, I acknowledged that I had. It was a foolish decision to deny it, but it was difficult to write in the first place.
When I was asked to write it, I thought, You know, he’s done some really bad things. He’s going to have to pay for them, but I can’t turn my back on my dad’s friend and a person who cared for my mom completely. All my political advisors had told me, “Don’t write a letter, don’t write a letter,” but I just couldn’t in good conscience completely ignore the other side of him.
So that’s how the book starts, and from there we go back and we set the tone, because really, Carl Thomas is an indication of the transition. Around that time, I was fighting to put in prison a lot of the underworld people—the people who were in the movie Casino and the like. Around that time was when the big transition occurred and organized crime really lost its foothold in Las Vegas.
Hope against hope
SCM: Since, for the first 10 years of your life, you grew up in Chicago, you also learned, as you put it, the joys and the sorrows of being a Cubs fan. So, are you still a Cubs fan?
Miller: Oh, yeah. You know, you never give up on the Cubs. There’s always next year.