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Is it Oscar vs. Obama or Oscar vs. Oscar

Las Vegas’ thin skin causes more problems than the economy or the president

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Mayor Oscar Goodman, in front of the iconic Las Vegas sign and flanked by the iconic showgirls of his city, speaks at the Earth Hour press conference on Feb. 4, 2009.
The Firm PR

There is an axiom I’m sure you’re all very familiar with that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. It is, it often seems, a central and guiding principle of one Oscar B. Goodman, the mayor of Las Vegas, who, to be sure, has gone a long, long way on notoriety that many might consider less than ideal.

Usually, the mayor’s antics leave even his critics begrudgingly impressed. His outlandish persona—the former mob lawyer, the gin-swiller, the showgirl cavorter, the delightfully, refreshingly impolitic politician—has turned him into one of only a handful of big-city mayors with any name recognition at all beyond their jurisdictional borders. (Quick: Name the mayor of Dallas, St. Louis or Atlanta. Can’t, right?)

Most of the time, this works. Goodman has, it is hard to dispute, succeeded in embodying a fitting and intriguing representation to the outside world of the esprit de vivre of Las Vegas.

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Yet last week, Hizzoner embodied other totally accurate facets of the Las Vegas mentality, but ones that do not serve the city quite as well: Paranoia. Inferiority. Victimhood. In the process, the mayor may very well have inadvertently helped create a very damaging, costly self-fulfilling prophecy.

A little background is in order, of course. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the suckiest of sucky economies. Austerity and fiscal caution are the rules of the day.

Also as a rule, when businesses are having a hard time staying afloat, they cut back. One of the first things to go is business travel, and that means that they cancel corporate meetings and reduce the number of folks going to trade shows. Las Vegas knows this; the city has seen it happen before.

“The corporate-meetings market is always very soft in recessions,” says Tradeshow Week editor Michael Hughes. “The weakest part of the national meetings business is the same as the Las Vegas business.”

So it’s not unusual and it shouldn’t be unduly alarming if convention attendance falls off and if some events get canceled. Nobody around here ought to take it personally, right?

Well, they don’t think that way in these parts. They’re a bit touchy.

Add to this mix the fact that Wells Fargo, a federal bailout recipient, thought it was wise to follow through with an expensive luxury junket to the Wynn Las Vegas resort to reward high-performing employees. They were shamed into canceling, and that flap became fodder for President Obama at an Indiana speech to reference in admonishing bailout recipients. Don’t use taxpayer money for frivolity, he insisted.

And that’s where it should’ve ended. The rest of the world didn’t seem to have any trouble differentiating between the idea of legitimate business events occurring in Las Vegas and the squandering of taxpayer funds on facials and show tickets.

But it didn’t. KLAS-TV’s Edward Lawrence got Goodman on tape demanding an apology from President Obama for uttering “Las Vegas.” The context of the president’s remarks didn’t matter, either to the local media or to the mayor. Pair up Obama’s remarks with the decision by Goldman Sachs, another bailout baby, to move a technology conference to San Francisco on the same day, and you’ve got a causal relationship even though Goldman Sachs insisted one had nothing to do with the other.

“The mayor heard the words ‘Las Vegas,’ he didn’t hear any other city, and people are telling me that they’re not coming to Las Vegas because the president doesn’t want them to,” Goodman said at a press conference even as he backed down on the apology demand in favor of wanting a presidential clarification. “There’s an impression out there that somehow if you come to Las Vegas, it’s going to reflect on your business culture, and that’s a bunch of hooey.”

As I type this, we’re at the end of a busy week in which journalists—myself included—have tried and tried and failed completely to get even a single event organizer to say that they canceled their event or are rethinking it because Obama said to do so. The closest anyone’s come is Ben Spillman of the Review-Journal, who quoted a local events planner who says she’s heard this. That’s a good source, but it’s also still secondhand information. When I pressed Goodman at that press conference about calls or e-mails he said he had received to this effect, his own communications staff immediately lowered the dial by saying there were only a few and that they hadn’t even come from convention planners.

It is true that many conventions have been canceled and some have been moved. Did this happen, though, because of either Obama’s comments or the party reputation of Las Vegas? Again, there’s nobody who has attributed any specific changes in plans to either reason. A downturn was inevitable.

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And yet in getting bent out of shape as he did, Goodman managed to return to the fore an issue that Las Vegas had just spent decades successfully conquering, the question of whether people can get serious business done at events here. Clearly corporate America has decided that it could or Las Vegas wouldn’t now be the runaway convention leader.

Now, let’s play a little pretend. Imagine if Goodman had never demanded that apology. What if he had said, “President Obama was not talking about legitimate business, he was talking about leisure travel on the taxpayers’ dime”? How would that have played?

Answer: The national media never would be debating whether serious people can do serious work in a city full of distractions. I certainly never would have had a reason to do the piece I did for The New York Times on Sunday. Perhaps the convention-business downturn in Las Vegas might’ve been worthy of a story at some point, but largely as a logical and predictable result of a bad economy. Nobody would have thought of putting it into the public sphere—where convention planners now must contend with it—that maybe it would look bad to go to Vegas for a legitimate event.

So, no, not all publicity is good publicity. Some of it gives your enemies an opening to exploit. For my Times piece, I interviewed Mark Theis from the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau. He smells blood in the water. He’s about to start chasing convention business that now comes to Vegas by saying, essentially: “Our city is so god-awful boring and our weather is so lousy, nobody will raise an eyebrow if you come here.”

I don’t doubt the mayor’s outrage was genuine. But what it reflected is insecurity that Las Vegas’ psyche seems fated to never outgrow. The damage control going on now is not damage that Obama or even the economy inflicted. Las Vegas did this to itself.

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