Hey! Randy

The House Always Wins

Posted by heyrandy on December 6, 2008

The Money and the Power   The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America 1947-2000, Sally Denton and Roger Morris, Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.  479 pages, index, end notes.

“Don’t run for public office.  We own the politicians.”  Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel to one of his men.  This is really the story of Las Vegas.  Politicians owned by the casino operators.  This fact enabled the little dusty town on the road from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City to become the center of much of America.  Known for its gambling, Las Vegas’ influence is felt through the country.  Little stands in the way of Las Vegas;  whatever Vegas wants, Vegas gets.

The book is a history of the city, but it is really a collection of portraits of its operators, the men who founded the now massive gambling empires and the politicians that were paid to help and protect them.  It is an amazing collection:  immigrant eastern European Jews, Italians, Irishmen, an eccentric millionaire industrialist, and a French Basque.  The CIA would also use the city and its casinos for its own purposes.

The authors cut through much of the mystique of the city.  It was not all Italian Mafioso in flashy suits and gaudy jewellery that started the empires.  It was a couple of Jewish thugs.  It all began with the Bugs and Meyer gang.  The first hotel/casino was built by Siegel and Lansky.  It eventually cost Siegel his life once it was found out that Siegel was skimming money from the construction funds, but the hotel and casino were a success, if not initially, that inspired many to follow.  It seemed that it is impossible to loose money in Las Vegas unless you make a bet.

Siegel’s murder was an aberration, at least in the early days.  The Syndicate  (the authors’ preferred term, and probably a better one considering the multi-ethnic character of the hoodlums in control) declared that Las Vegas would be an open city to all comers.  There would be no turf battles.  This caused the rapid growth of the “gaming industry.”  Murders would come soon.

Initially the funding for the casinos came mostly from drug and prohibition alcohol sales.  Later more legitimate funding would come from such diverse places as the Mormon Church and the the Teamsters’ pension fund.  The diversity of funding ensured the appearance of legitimacy.  It also ensured that a lot of people would be well paid for their services.

The casinos were very successful.  They ensured their continued success by copious contributions to elected officials.  This is the most amazing thing revealed in the book.  Political corruption is not new, but the extent of the corruption spawned by the success of the casinos is enormous.  It is to be expected that the casinos would pay off those directly affecting the casinos, but the money also went to presidential candidates and congressmen.  This effort was repaid in the stymieing of congressional and Justice Department investigations into Las Vegas gambling.  The house always wins.

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