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Miller's Tale

Miller's Tale
Photo by Clay Hamilton
by Steven Boyd Saum |
To tell the story of Bob Miller ’67 is to tell the coming-of-age tale of Las Vegas itself. And it’s the chronicle of a man who served a decade as governor of Nevada. Quite a journey for the son of an illegal bookie from Chicago.

The newspaper article could have derailed a political career. Certainly it was meant to do that. The headline: “Nevada Official Vouched for Man Linked to Mobsters.” The subject: Bob Miller ’67, lieutenant governor of Nevada, and a letter he’d once written on behalf of Carl Thomas, a casino employee who had once worked for Miller’s late father and, later, was convicted of skimming profits at another casino for the mob.

The piece ran in the San Jose Mercury News in September 1988, and it tarnished both Miller and Nevada Gov. Dick Bryan, who was running for U.S. Senate. These were high stakes, no question; if Bryan won that race, Miller would become governor. But the accusations and insinuations were things Miller had already dealt with for years. After all, Bob Miller’s father, Ross, had once been an illegal bookmaker in Chicago who came to Las Vegas in the 1950s and, in the city of second chances, worked his way up through the casino business.

That element of family history is the origin of the title for Miller’s just-published autobiography, Son of a Gambling Man. This is a personal tale: about family and hopes and dreams that parents have for their kids, of giving opportunities that you never had to future generations. What makes it epic, though, is that it’s a tale of a city—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, as Time magazine declared.

This is a personal tale: about family and hopes and dreams that parents have for their kids,
of giving opportunities to future generations
that you never had.

A policy tome or chronicle of statecraft this Miller’s tale is not. Bob Miller has given the book the subtitle My Journey from a Casino Family to the Governor’s Mansion. He opens with the tale of the newspaper piece meant to run the Bryan campaign off the rails. And, as the tale unfolds, it reveals that some of those mobsters whom Miller was supposedly “linked to” in wiretaps were underworld characters who include Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro and others who inspired Martin Scorsese’s movie Casino.

So, what were these links? And how was Bob Miller’s father’s past drawn into the present? To answer that, let’s fill in the picture a bit.
 

Governor Bob

First, some here and now: Bob Miller stands six-foot-four and carries himself with an easy confidence; he doesn’t have a lot to prove. In a dark pin-striped suit, he’s well dressed for the part of governor emeritus. On a sunny Thursday afternoon in February we eat lunch in the Wynn Hotel on the Strip, and a couple of folks in upper management stop by the table to say hello. There is no mistaking Governor Bob; after all, he held the top office in the state for a decade. And there’s no mistaking that he’s played well the interesting cards that he’s been dealt in life.

No mirage: Miller took office as governor in 1989, the same year the Vegas boom began. Photo by Charles Barry

At Santa Clara, Miller studied political science. It was a good preparation for law school, but his real political education began when he ran for office the first time and his opponents put someone else on the ballot with the same name as him.

He had been appointed justice of the peace and was up for re-election. “About an hour before the close of filing, the clerk called and said, ‘Hey, you know, we have two Robert Millers on the ballot,’” Miller says. He rushed over to the clerk’s office and, not exactly sure what to do, changed his filing from Robert to Bob. “Later I found out that a couple of my opponents, independent of each other, had called every Robert Miller in the phone book” trying to get them to run. They got a taker in a baggage clerk at the airport; then they sent that man on vacation with some newfound cash.

Miller’s campaign went to the press with this story of political hijinks. The campaign plastered new Bob stickers over its billboards and signs. It worked. And from there on out, whatever office he ran for—district attorney for Clark County, lieutenant governor of Nevada, and governor—it would be as Bob Miller.
 

From bookie to the riv

Watch and read more from our interview with Bob Miller in "Six questions for Governor Bob."

The casino industry in Las Vegas didn’t get built in the 1950s and 1960s by folks who had gaming experience in a legal jurisdiction. “There wasn’t any,” Miller says. “For Las Vegas to grow, you had to have people who had experience, and they all came from someplace where it was illegal. My father was among those.”

His father, Ross Miller, came to Nevada from Chicago, where he owned a bar called the Silver Palm, also home to a bookmaking operation. He was offered the chance to buy some points—to become a small-time investor—in the first Las Vegas high-rise, the Riviera Hotel. The family moved west in 1955. At the time, financing for the Riv and the rest of the nascent casino industry came from unconventional sources—mainly the Teamsters pension fund.

Ross Miller worked his way up from pit boss to casino manager and ultimately chairman of the board of the Riviera. He partnered with Jay Sarno to open Circus Circus in the late 1960s. After that was sold, he later owned another small casino, the Slots-A-Fun.

It was a time of transition, when the basic attitude of local law enforcement was: Whatever you were, here you stay clean. Deals were sealed with a handshake. “He lived in a world where your word was your bond,” Bob Miller says of his father. “If you said it, you did it, period.”

That rule applied in business. And it held with a promise that Ross Miller made to the Catholic priest who performed his wedding ceremony: to raise his children Catholic.

Ross Miller also wanted a very different life for his son than the one he’d led: son of a coal miner who died when he was a teenager. Bob Miller would be the first in his family to go to college; his father wanted him to go to law school as well. “He did not want me in the gaming industry at all,” Miller says.

But he did allow his teenage son to take a job as lifeguard at the Riviera pool. Which yields a few stories in Miller’s memoir, including a pair of encounters with young songstress Barbra Streisand, then opening for Liberace at the Riv. Young and in love, she and husband Elliott Gould caused some consternation with their poolside displays of affection. “So we were having to tell them, ‘Please, if you’re going to be kissing and doing these things, go to your room.’”
 

Going Corporate

Ross Miller seldom made it to his son’s basketball games; he was usually working. Graduations were a different matter. In May ’67, Bob Miller’s parents came to Santa Clara for commencement. It was a thrilling but precarious time; earlier that spring, Ross Miller and other part-owners of the Riviera were indicted following a federal investigation of skimming casino profits. Cooperating with the feds was Nevada’s new governor, Paul Laxalt ’44—who had attended Santa Clara for three years, and who delivered the commencement address that year.

Charges against Ross Miller were ultimately dropped. And it was Laxalt who signed into law Nevada’s Corporate Gaming Act, which would open up Las Vegas to the kind of major capital investment that the Teamsters couldn’t muster. It was “part of Laxalt’s strategy to push the mob out of Vegas casinos,” Miller writes.

Circus Circus: Ross Miller helped usher in a new era of showmanship on The Strip.

That corporate investment began in earnest in 1973 with Kirk Kerkorian’s MGM Grand Las Vegas. Development boomed with investor Steve Wynn’s properties beginning in 1989, just as Bob Miller took office as governor.

Ross Miller didn’t live to see the corporate transformation of Las Vegas or his son elected to office. He died shortly before Bob Miller was appointed justice of the peace. “I can’t even imagine what he would have thought about me being governor,” Miller says.

When Miller ran for district attorney of Clark County, his mother was still alive, however; and she was used in the campaign against him. The question: How could Bob Miller be trusted as D.A. to deal with the gaming industry when his mother was a gambler?

“My mother never played anything,” Miller says. “A sweet, little Irish lady, went to Mass every day.” But she had inherited her husband’s interest in the Slots-A-Fun casino.

At that point, Miller already had experience as an attorney for the sheriff’s office and for the D.A.’s office. That proved more important in the race for district attorney, which he won. As D.A., he established himself as a strong advocate for victims’ rights. He was one of two Democrats appointed to President Ronald Reagan’s National Task Force on Victims of Crime; through that he formed a friendship with John Walsh, who had begun campaigning to change federal laws on missing children after his son Adam was kidnapped in Florida. Walsh later became known to millions of Americans through hosting the television program America’s Most Wanted.

Miller also served as president of the National District Attorneys Association. He persuaded the organization to back the Missing Children Act, which Reagan signed into law. He also convinced the association to bring its annual convention back to Nevada. After a New York attorney had double- dipped on travel funds for a convention in Las Vegas, the association had put the kibosh on further meetings in the Silver State. “As if Nevada was somehow responsible,” Miller says. Miller tried to change perceptions: “You know, we actually have Little League, we have movie theaters, we have schools, we have PTA.”
 

Santa Clara Years

First-person stories of being a student in the ’60s—and dad of a grad in 2012.

One of two Nevadans in his class: There were those, particularly my first roommate from Omaha, who thought I must be a heathen because I was from Las Vegas. But over a period of time, as people got to know me, they would recognize, “Oh, he’s just a normal person.”

What to study? I didn’t have a game plan. I certainly didn’t think I was going into politics. As I went through orientation, I had this kind of glamorized vision: I’m going to be a business person of great esteem, and I’ll probably speak French at cocktail parties and talk about the latest artworks. I majored in economics, but my grades were up and down. Finally, during my junior year, I realized this wasn’t going to work. I had done well in political science classes, so I changed majors. I had a pretty good LSAT score, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gotten into law school then. My daughter Megan Miller ’12 is in law school now, having graduated from Santa Clara last year, but she graduated magna cum laude. I graduated “You’re finally done, goodbye.”

Vegas road trip: Dave Hickey ’67 and a couple other friends from the Midwest came with me to Las Vegas during one of the school breaks. We went in the afternoon to a burlesque-type show. There weren’t a lot of people there, and we were sitting kind of in the front. They hadn’t really checked our IDs like they should have. They got to the feature act, and they said, “The beautiful, the lovely, Francine!” This gorgeous, 5-foot, 9-inch brunette walked out wearing partial clothing. I leaned over to Dave and the other fellows with me, and I said, “That was my date to the senior ball in high school.” They’re thinking, “Yeah, right—there’s no way he could have been dating this girl.” Shortly into the number, the lighting changed, and she could see down into the audience. She stopped and looked at me and said, “Oh, Bobby, hi!” It was a shock to me and to them, and probably to her as well. Though at that time in Las Vegas, a lot of girls went into dancing, because the showrooms had a lot of chorus lines and the like, and a lot of guys went into the casino business.

The legendary 1991 SCU Law commencement address: I gave a relatively short speech, which ended with a paraphrase of a speech by Clarence Darrow, consisting exclusively of, “Survive, survive, survive,”—at which point I went and sat down. The Chancellor looked over to Father President and said, “Is he done?” Later he told me, “I’ll always remember three speeches. Rose Bird, because she spoke for an hour and a half in sweltering heat. Warren Burger, because he was then Chief Justice of the United States. And you.”

Truth and consequences

The new D.A. also had to reckon once more with the fact that the past isn’t really past. Shortly after Miller had become D.A., it was disclosed that federal wiretaps revealed that Carl Thomas was helping organized crime figures in Kansas City skim money from the Tropicana and the Stardust. In one wiretap, Thomas mentioned having breakfast with Bob Miller. It was a bit of name-dropping, followed by Thomas acknowledging that Miller was a “stand-up kid” and not to be bought.

True, Miller knew Thomas, who had worked for Ross Miller and made his way up through the ranks of the gaming world. After Ross Miller’s death, Thomas had gone out of his way to help his widow, stopping by the house to check on her every day. But he also, apparently, got involved with the skim.

“When all these tapes came out, even the governor and others, the gaming regulars, everybody was shocked,” Miller says.

Thomas was convicted in two cases but offered testimony against others to have his prison time reduced. During sentencing, his legal defense team approached Miller, asking him to write a letter, in private, on Thomas’ behalf—“just outlining the person, the side of him that I knew.” Political advisors told Miller not to do it. “But 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.”

September 1988. Nevada Lt. Gov. Bob Miller gets a call from a Washington-based reporter asking about the letter from years before. What prompted the call? Likely some encouragement from Sen. Chic Hecht, who was running for re-election against Dick Bryan, then Nevada’s governor. “I made the foolish mistake of initially denying that I had written the letter,” Miller says.

But he soon owned up to it. And he turned to law enforcement to vouch for him: sheriffs, district attorneys, and a lawyer who’d served on Department of Justice crime strike forces in Detroit and Las Vegas. That carried more weight in the campaign. In January 1989, Bryan took office as senator, and Bob Miller became governor of Nevada.
 

Treasure Island

In 1973, Bob Miller wed Sandy Searles, an educator for the deaf who had grown up in southern Nevada. When Miller offered his first State of the State Address, he came out of the gate with an initiative that hit very close to home: improve education by reducing the number of students per class in early grades. Where would the money come from? For starters, Miller took on the mining industry. The PR slogan for the industry at the time was “Mining. It works for Nevada.” The punch line of Miller’s first big speech as governor: “Well, it is not working hard enough!”

By telling of his journey to the governor’s mansion, Son of a Gambling Man isn’t focused on Miller’s achievements as governor. Though it does recount the unrest in Las Vegas following the verdict in the Rodney King case in Los Angeles, and how peace was restored.

There’s also the inauguration of the boom era in Las Vegas that has forever changed the face of the city and the way the world sees it: mega-resorts the Mirage (complete with a volcano and dolphins), Treasure Island, the Bellagio, the Excalibur, Luxor—“they all came along during the 10 years I was governor.”

During the 1992 presidential election, Miller was one of the first governors to sign on supporting his fellow Democrat from Arkansas, Bill Clinton. During the Clinton presidency, Miller headed the National Governors Association. And Clinton provides a foreword for Miller’s book. When Miller completed his second term as governor, he was courted as a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Miller decided to pass. He was interested when his name was floated for consideration as the next U.S. ambassador to Mexico. But the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jesse Helms, blocked that. Why? A call from a one-time Nevada colleague, Chic Hecht, who had been defeated in 1988 because of Bob Miller.
 

Rings True

It’s his son, Ross James Miller, who is in politics these days, serving as Nevada’s secretary of state.

Bob Miller is on corporate boards and runs R.J. Miller Consulting. “And I’ll keep trying to improve at golf, which is probably a lost cause,” he says.

But golf also has something to do with a ring (along with a wedding band) that Miller wears. The ring depicts the state of Nevada, a golfer, and the sword of the American Cancer Society—and it’s the logo from a golf tournament that Miller has held for a quarter century in memory of his father. Both of his parents died of cancer.

Miller notes that Bob Hope once played in the tournament—and that Hope had a locker near his father’s at a country club in Palm Springs for a few years. That club figures into the memoir, in fact: When Ross Miller was applying, one of the members—actor Randolph Scott—objected to the notion of some Vegas character being allowed to join. In the end, the other members offered Scott a choice: “If you don’t like it, you can quit.”

Since Ross Miller never lived to see his son elected to office, I wonder, is there anything the son would want to say to the father?

“I get a little emotional,” Miller says. He set out to tell a personal tale in his book, and that comes home in this moment. We’ve been talking a long time, and here his voice shakes. “I’d like to tell him I hope he’s proud of me.”

That’s a safe bet.

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Spring/Summer 2013

Table of contents

Features

Walk Across California

An epic journey whereby one foot is put in front of the other to discover, up close and personal, who and what and where is the Golden State.

Miller's Tale

To tell the story of Bob Miller ’67 is to tell the coming-of-age tale of Las Vegas itself. And it’s the chronicle of a man who served a decade as governor of Nevada. Quite a journey for the son of an illegal bookie from Chicago.

Blood. Sweat. Tears. Repeat.

Nina Acosta ’82 was a tough enough cop to pass the test for the LAPD’s SWAT team. Then she learned the hard way about gender discrimination. So how did she do on Survivor?

Mission Matters

When justice is kidnapped

The 2013 Alexander Law Prize honors Chen Guangcheng, a Chinese civil-rights activist and attorney who protested government abuses—including excessive enforcement of the one-child policy—then escaped house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Double trouble

Growing up tennis with Kelly Lamble ’13 and John Lamble ’14. And Bronco teams that are a force to be reckoned with nationally.

Keep the door open

For teaching and advising and a ministry that’s blessed this place for 48 years—paying tribute to Charles Phipps, S.J.