Monday night's banquet in honor of Paul Laxalt, who is leaving the Senate but not public life, was a little different from most affairs of its kind. For one thing, the people in the room actually knew him and agreed with Utah Sen. Jake Garn's characterization of him as an "incredibly decent man."
In addition to the warmth, the evening had political content. President Reagan praised his officially designated "best friend." He even gratingly compared his search for words worthy of the occasion to Lincoln's at Gettysburg. Reagan spoke with such emotion that some thought he was endorsing Laxalt for the presidency.
"Look to the son of the high mountains and the peasant herders, to the son of the Sierra and the immigrant Basque family. Look to a man, to a friend, to an American who gave himself so that others might live in freedom," the president said.
Although he specifically spoke to scholars trying to plumb the origins of the glories of the Reagan era, it sounded like an anointment, and reporters asked Laxalt if he agreed. He said easily, "No, I don't think so."
Two other presidency-seekers paid their tributes to Laxalt. Former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig, speaking English for once, was unexpectedly brief and witty. New York Rep. Jack Kemp -- although he mangled Laxalt's line to Ferdinand Marcos that he should "cut, and cut cleanly" -- was far less hyper than usual. Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming read a long, rowdy cowboy ditty.
All speakers made lightsome reference to Laxalt's much publicized role in Marcos' departure from the Philippines. Hearty laughter ensued. It showed how invaluable have been Laxalt's services to the president. Marcos was the right's man. Like Reagan, they hated all the turmoil in the streets of Manila and disdained the upstart presidential candidacy of Corazon Aquino. Had anybody but the straight-shooter before them been involved, the right would have thought something fancy or crooked was afoot.
The only thing that would make members of the right wing relatively happy -- their habitual mode is anger and fear -- is if Reagan could succeed Reagan. The next best thing would be the nomination of Laxalt, who would offer the continuity they cannot see in either Kemp or Vice President Bush.
The Nevadan is handsome, silver-haired, dark-eyed and a conservative down to the toes of his wine-red turtle cowboy boots. And he represents a continuation of what one of them described as "Reagan's nonthreatening western personality." He is easy-going, approachable, affable, given to chuckling.
It was Laxalt's management of the effort to stop the Panama Canal treaty that put him in the right's pantheon. That effort also picked him up fans on the left, particularly among the news media, for whom he was the first exposure to a nonthundering, nonsanctimonious right-winger. He gave accurate vote counts, candid assessments of the spine of his troops. He never questioned the motives or the patriotism of the opposition, such as the White House is now doing in the fight over aid for Nicaraguan rebels.
What clouds the conservative dream is Laxalt's past as governor of Nevada. His home state means casinos, the mob and press-hounds in full cry after his contributors. Laxalt doesn't think Nevada is an insuperable obstacle. "Taking money from gamblers is like taking auto money in Michigan," he once said. "Gambling is the industry in Nevada."
The conservatives are flopping miserably between Bush, whose pandering and gentility irritate them equally, and Kemp, who they say "hasn't made up his mind to run," although he practically commutes to New Hampshire. Kemp blotted his copybook by voting for South African sanctions and is suspiciously eager to reach out to minorities.
No such doubts and reservations attend conservatives' regard for Laxalt. He is one of them.
Laxalt is not averse to being president. But his admirers say he would expect the nomination to come to him. Also they wonder if he could stand the Ferraro-strength scrutiny of his family business. Laxalt is quitting the Senate to pursue a libel suit against the owners of The Sacramento Bee, which published a report alleging skimming in a family-owned hotel-casino. To Laxalt, it is a matter of family honor.
He has told those urging him to get into the race that he will address the question when he gives up the chairmanship of the Republican Party next year. But he's thinking about it, and the right is yearning.