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Election history buffs know well the story of Nevada’s tight finish to the 1964 U.S. Senate race. People in the Silver State are still telling their grandkids about that one. But few know that the Senator with the most to lose went to the wire to get the Federal Bureau of Investigation involved. While going down a rabbit hole to investigate another story recently, I stumbled upon a new FBI file that contains the juicy details.

This is one for the record books – or should be.

When Americans went to the polls in November 1964, they were still reeling from the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The beloved 35th President died before he could see his landmark civil rights legislation pass, but his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson brought it across the finish line, signing The Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law in July of that year. Campaigning on the promise of continuing Kennedy’s work, Johnson won over the voters. He shellacked Barry Goldwater, capturing an unheard-of 61.1% of the vote. On his coattails rode in an additional 36 democratic House members, significantly increasing the party’s majority in that chamber, while they maintained their two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate. This would set the stage, Johnson hoped, to help him pass a package of anti-poverty programs called the “Great Society.”

There was a potential hiccup, though, over in Nevada.

Johnson ally Howard Cannon was precariously close to losing his bid for re-election to Nevada’s then Lt. Governor, Paul Laxalt. And President Johnson was having none of that.

According to a file the FBI made public in February 2023, Cannon called the Las Vegas office of the FBI just before 8:00 the night after the election and asked to be connected to the Special Agent in Charge – known as the SAC. (Yes. The FBI makes up these anacronyms, so you don’t have to).

The night clerk advised the Senator that the SAC was not available, but that the Assistant Special Agent in Charge would call him immediately. When ASAC James T. Moreland and the Senator connected, Cannon stated that at that hour, his lead over Laxalt was a mere 165 votes. He said that President Johnson had called him earlier that evening and advised him to request that FBI agents be positioned in all 17 of Nevada’s counties to guard the ballot boxes pending a recount, and to inform the election clerks that any tampering with the ballots was a federal offense.

The Senator wasn’t shy about saying he had friends in high places during the call. “Senator Cannon stated that he wanted to point out that this was not his request but it was coming directly from the President and the President expected a report from him on the morning of 11.5.64 as to what had been done,” Moreland wrote in his memo.

Should Cannon not be able to obtain the FBI’s help, the Senator said, Johnson told him the then Acting Attorney General Nicholas Katzenback, “would handle it.”

The FBI generally likes to stay in the good graces of the President, and agents sometimes have to chase leads that don’t pan out. But dispatching an FBI agent to every single county in Nevada to guard ballot boxes…I mean…that might be enough to send any bureaucrat into a tailspin. But they couldn’t just shine Cannon on. Moreland called the night supervisor in the Las Vegas office and told him that the request to send agents to guard ballot boxes was “obviously something which we don’t do; however, I suggested to him that he contact someone in higher authority who could give us a definite direction that we could stand on.”

Moreland goes on to detail that there were several phone calls made to the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., and that J. Edgar Hoover himself had been advised of Cannon’s request. “Mr. Belmont had called the Director and talked to him,” Moreland wrote, “at which time the Director stated this is absurd.” However, Hoover ordered, if the President said the FBI must provide ballot protection, “then we would have to do it.”

More calls ensued, this time between headquarters and the White House. Johnson’s aide Bill Moyers said that the President thought he understood Cannon to be alleging he knew specifically of a violation of election laws. Moreland was instructed to call the Senator once again and ask directly if he had information on election law violations or irregularities in voting. If so, the FBI would investigate. If not, they would not engage.

It was apparent headquarters was getting irritated.

“The Bureau advised that if there was an investigation to be done,” Moreland wrote, “it should be done in the regular, normal working hours and not started at night or an unreasonable hour in the morning.”

Moreland’s last call to Cannon that night was at 10:30. Cannon did not have any specific evidence of vote tampering, so Moreland advised him the FBI would not dispatch agents to Nevada’s 17 counties. Moreland advised him the appearance of FBI engagement might result in not only public criticism of the government but also of the Senator. Moreland also advised Cannon that Nevada’s U.S. Attorney had dispatched telegrams to all of Nevada’s County Clerks that day, instructing them to secure the ballots and voting machines.

“The Senator appeared relieved about this and observed that the action which had been taken might be adequate,” Moreland concluded.

But Cannon didn’t give up.

According to the FBI file, at 9:30 the night of November 6, the Senator called Dean Elson, the Las Vegas Special Agent in Charge. By that time his lead had dwindled to 116 votes. And ballots in the state’s two most populous counties – Washoe and Clark – had yet to be certified.

Cannon told Elson he’d received a telephone tip minutes before that “some people will do some monkeying to the elections machines tonight.” Cannon would not disclose the identity of his tipster, but since both counties’ ballot boxes were stored at that time in a location in Clark County, Elson got then-Sheriff Ralph Lamb to double the number of deputies he had positioned there to guard the ballots.

In the days that followed, local media broke the story that the Senate Subcommittee on Elections had dispatched both a Democratic and a Republican Senator to watch over the recount process. But what the public didn’t know was the frenzy the FBI was in behind the scenes.

The Las Vegas FBI, Director Hoover made clear, was not to use its resources investigating the recount. In an urgent teletype to his Las Vegas staff dated November 13, the Director instructed, “Furnish current summary from news media or other information already available to your office regarding nature of investigation being conducted by Senate investigators and any allegations of irregularities. Do not conduct any active investigation to obtain this information.”

Some lucky staffer in the Las Vegas office had the job of clipping newspaper articles and sharing them with headquarters. And some of headlines were real screamers.

“CANNON EDGE CUT TO 57,” said a November 13 headline in the Las Vegas Sun. “Crucial Canvass Today.” “STATE VOTE SHOWDOWN” was the headline in the Review-Journal the following day.

Cannon and Laxalt’s vote count volleyed back and forth as the recount continued. The breathless headlines read like a high-stakes horse race. The R-J reported that Laxalt gained 10 votes in Lyon County. Then Cannon’s lead narrowed to 62 votes. And so it went over the next few days. On November 14, the RJ reported: “CANNON BY 48 VOTES.” “Cannon’s Lead Only 43,” reported the Sun in one of the first lowercase headlines used to update the story in days. Then on December 1st, “CANNON CLINGS TO LEAD,” reported the Sun. “Margin Gets Boost to 146 When Goof in Precinct Found.” Then, when Laxalt gained 79 votes in the White Pine County recount, the R-J reported on December 2, “CANNON CLAIMS FOUL. Cow County Count Unfair.” The recount continued. Cannon continued to lose votes.

But at last, in the then-closest U.S. Senate race in history, Cannon was declared the winner – by just 48 votes.

And a final headline in the FBI file, dated December 6, 1964, accurately predicted, “A TALE TOLD BY OLD MEN MANY YEARS FROM NOW…Cannon-Laxalt a Legend.”

Postscript: Laxalt filed an unsuccessful appeal of the ’64 election results to the Nevada Supreme Court. But given his stunning showing in his first run for federal office, Republicans knew they had a rising star on their hands. He was elected to one term as Nevada Governor, and to two as a U.S. Senator. As for Cannon, he served four terms in the U.S. Senate. In the late 1970s Teamsters Union President Roy Lee Williams offered Cannon a bribe to block a transportation bill. While the good Senator denied taking any money and was never charged, Williams, by then a frail old man, was tried and convicted. That dustup cost Cannon his re-election bid in 1982.

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