Chic Hecht, R.I.P.

It was sad that when former Sen. Mayer Jacob “Chic” Hecht (R.-Nev.) died of cancer May 15, at 77, most of the newspaper obituaries focused on his lisp and what the New York Times called “his verbal miscues.” The Times, and just about every other newspaper reporting Hecht’s death, cited one case of those “miscues” — when Hecht referred to the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in his home state as a “nuclear suppository.”

But there was much more to the conservative Hecht (lifetime ACU rating: 94%) than some awkward speaking. Indeed, it was inspirational that — with his lisp and being “anything but a brilliant phrasemaker,” as the Almanac of American Politics once put it — he went as far as he did in the military, business and politics.

A native of Cape Girardeau, Mo., and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Hecht joined the U.S. Army and served as a counterintelligence operative in Berlin in 1952-53. Following his discharge, Hecht moved to Las Vegas and launched two clothing stores that would quickly thrive. When friend and fellow Republican Paul Laxalt won the Nevada governorship in 1966, Hecht was elected to the state senate. Two years later, he became Republican leader of the senate and Laxalt’s point man with lawmakers. Defeated for re-election in 1974, Hecht remained active in politics. When Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford for President in 1976 and then-Sen. Laxalt was his national campaign chairman, Hecht served as the Reagan chairman for Southern Nevada.

Hecht returned personally to electoral politics in 1982, when he declared for the Senate seat of embattled four-term Democrat Howard Cannon. The incumbent had been severely tainted by being named in the indictment of Teamster Union President Roy Lee Williams and mobster Allen Dorfman. One month before the election, Cannon was forced to testify extensively in their trial. Hecht defeated three opponents to win the Republican nomination and, with help from Reagan and Laxalt, unseated Cannon by a 50%-to-48% margin.

The Nevadan won spots on the Energy, Banking and Intelligence Committees and strongly supported the Reagan agenda. Behind the scenes, with help from his brother Marty, a Missouri businessman and leader in the American Jewish community, Hecht helped persuade Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.) to change and support U.S. aid for Israel.

In 1988, Hecht was unseated by two-term Gov. Richard Bryan (D.) and went on to serve five years as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas.