Paul Laxalt was born in Reno, Nevada, the son of a Basque shepherd, Dominique, and a Basque mother who had a restaurant in Carson City, the capital of Nevada. He served as a medical corpsman in the U.S. Army during World War II seeing action in the Battle of Leyte Gulf during the Philippine invasion. Prior to the war, he had attended Santa Clara University. After the war, he graduated from the University of Denver in 1949. He was the district attorney for Ormsby County, Nevada between 1950 and 1954.
Paul Laxalt was elected lieutenant governor of Nevada in 1962 and served until 1966. In 1964 he ran for the U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Howard Cannon and lost a controversial election by only 48 votes; it is very likely he would have won had it not been for Lyndon Johnson's landslide reelection victory. Two years later, he was elected Governor of Nevada, defeating two-term incumbent Grant Sawyer, and served until 1970 when he decided against seeking re-election. He ran for Nevada's other Senate seat in the Watergate year of 1974 after 20-year incumbent Alan Bible retired. He defeated Lieutenant Governor Harry Reid in an election that was decided by less than 600 votes, becoming one of the few bright spots in what was otherwise a bad year for Republicans.
Laxalt's tenure as governor was noteworthy for coinciding with the purchase of a large number of hotel-casinos by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Laxalt's tenure also marked an increase of corporate ownership of gaming operations in the State of Nevada.
During his time as governor, Paul Laxalt became close friends with Ronald Reagan, who was then in his first term as governor of California. They worked on many issues of mutual interest to the two states, principally those dealing with the preservation of Lake Tahoe. During Reagan's presidency, Senator Laxalt was sometimes referred to as the "First Friend." Paul Laxalt was national chairman of three Reagan presidential campaigns and placed Reagan's name in nomination at the Republican National Conventions of 1976, 1980 and 1984. During the 1980 Republican National Convention, Laxalt's name was floated as a potential Vice Presidential nominee for the Reagan ticket, although George H.W. Bush was chosen instead.. At the behest of President Reagan, Laxalt served in the then-unprecedented role of General Chairman of the Republican Party from 1983-1987. In early 1987 he was at the top of the short list to replace Donald Regan, as White House chief of staff, but declined because he was going to run for president in 1988, and instead recommended Howard Baker, the man who took the job.
During Laxalt's second term as U.S. Senator, he sued the Sacramento Bee newspaper for libel in relation to a 1983 article it published about some of Laxalt's business dealings. Laxalt sought $250-million in damages, and the newspaper countersued him, seeking $6-million. In 1987 both lawsuits were settled. Laxalt declared that pretrial investigations had found no evidence of the wrongdoing at issue. The newspaper maintained that it did not commit libel because it had never directly reported that Laxalt was involved in wrongdoing; it had merely reported the fact that a third party held suspicions that Laxalt was involved in wrongdoing. Thus the Bee did not retract its article, apologize, or pay damages. Laxalt was quoted as saying that the prospect of a trial had hindered fundraising for a possible presidential campaign.
In 1985 Reagan asked him to travel to the Philippines to warn President Ferdinand Marcos about the U.S. government's increasing concerns about the state of the Philippine economy and the threat posed by a communist insurgency. At the height of the Philippine crisis, Marcos called Senator Laxalt to ask for his advice. Laxalt famously said that Marcos should "cut and cut cleanly." Sixteen hours later, Ferdinand Marcos, after 21 years as president of the Philippines, departed the country, never to return. A potential bloody civil war was thus averted.
Paul Laxalt's brother, Robert Laxalt, was a noted and prolific writer. His book, Sweet Promised Land, told the story of his father returning to his Basque homeland after almost 50 years in the American West, was an internationally acclaimed book that won several literary awards. Paul Laxalt was married to Jackalyn Ross, the daughter of a prominent federal judge in Nevada. Paul and Jackie had five daughters, Gail Sheila Michelle Kevin and Kathleen, and one son, John Paul. He has twelve grandchildren and two great-grand children. Paul is currently married to his second wife, Carol, who had one daughter from a previous marriage, Denise.
Laxalt retired from the Senate in 1987 and made a brief but unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination for the 1988 election. He was replaced by the man whom he had initially defeated in 1974 to win his Senate seat, future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Mr. Laxalt was a partner in the law firm of Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey.