Coming as it did in the midst of a pandemic claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and less than a week after a mob’s deadly attack on the nation’s Capitol building, the death of Las Vegas icon Sheldon Adelson received less notice than it deserved.
Adelson may not have been the self-promoter that Steve Wynn has been, but his influence in the tourism, gambling, and convention businesses range just as far, if not further. And who among us can say we were a major influence in the moving of a United States embassy?
Raised in Boston during the Depression, Adelson’s entrepreneurial drive took hold when he was a teen in the post-World War II era and led him to Las Vegas in the post-Mafia 1980s. He purchased the Sands Hotel-Casino (where the Rat Pack had held court a few decades earlier) and quickly attached a convention center to it.
A decade later the Sands was razed and its footprint rose the Venetian. Its companion property, the Palazzo, opened next door in 2007 along with a new convention center. While all this was going on, Adelson somehow found time to stretch his empire to the China gambling empire of Macau, where the Sands Macau supposedly was so successful that it returned his $265 million investment in 12 months.
While Adelson was certainly passionate about making money, it did not come without controversy. He was an early and vocal critic of online gambling, and more than a few critics said that as a bricks-and-mortar casino owner his stated reason (children’s access to gambling via the Internet) was disingenuous. Adelson also took more than a few hits for ardently opposing efforts to ban smoking in casinos.
A fervent supporter of Israel and Jewish causes in the United States, Adelson was a conservative whose political activism led him to the Republican Party. “I’m against very wealthy ¬people attempting to or influencing elections,” he once said. “But as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it.” He gave millions to the campaigns of Republican candidates, most notably one Donald J. Trump. The two were tied to the hip (Adelson wanted the U.S. Embassy moved to Jerusalem, and Trump was only too happy to accommodate him) for years until Trump pushed things a little too far.
Last August the two spoke on the phone. Adelson wanted to talk about the pandemic and the economy; Trump wanted to talk about why Adelson wasn’t writing checks with more zeroes. Whether they ever made up is uncertain, but not long after that Adelson’s cancer forced him to the sidelines.
Hard-right conservative politics notwithstanding, Adelson did receive credit for helping out his workers during the 2008 recession and most recently as jobs were jeopardized during the pandemic, making sure all his employees retained health care insurance. With a net worth of $35 billion, it didn’t put much of a dent in his bottom line.
Adelson lived to age 87, blowing past the normal retirement age by more than two decades and giving credence to one other Adelson quote: “The key factor in my strategy is longevity.”