By Betsy Rothstein - 04/25/06 12:00 AM EDT
LAS VEGAS — Sin City is anything you want it to be. It’s fantasy and reality, dark yet dazzling, cheap but luxurious. That’s part of the allure.
It’s a place of bronzed skin and ample cleavage stuffed into skimpy, sparkly clothing. Fliers handed out along the Strip promise sexy women in your hotel room for $35. Prostitution isn’t legal, but the city is rife with rules to be ignored. There are beauty and money, spas, fancy restaurants and movie stars.
And representing it all is Rep. Shelley Berkley.
We are lunching at the Four Seasons Hotel, just off the Strip. It is exquisite in a more subdued style than its environs. Birds chirp out by the pool, and easygoing elevator music is in the air. It is stately, serene, impeccable, maybe even dull, compared to the Mandalay Bay hotel, to which it is connected, a beach resort with man-made sand and a coconut-perfumed lobby.
I meet Berkley (D) and her aide, David Cherry, at the hotel’s Verandah restaurant. The congresswoman, dressed in an unflashy, cream-colored Talbots blazer and skirt, chats briefly with staff, who obviously know her, and we are ushered VIP-style to an outside table.
The day is perfect — sunny blue skies, 78 degrees, no humidity. The congresswoman looks content; it was her late mother’s favorite restaurant and a place Berkley considers special.
Berkley’s mother died three summers ago, 14 years after being diagnosed with cancer, about which she told no one and for which she declined treatment.
“It plagues me,” Berkley says. “I don’t know if it was the most selfless act she ever performed or the most selfish.”
The congresswoman says every woman in her family dies of cancer but adds, “I think I’m going to escape this curse, and I can’t tell you why.”
She lets out a whoop of laughter and says, “My mother had a fear of doctors — other than her daughter marrying one.”
With the moment lightened, she explains that her second husband, David Lerner, is a nephrologist. She married him at Bally’s hotel, in the same reception room and with the same caterer as when she married her first husband, with whom she has two sons, Max and Sam.
She and her first husband still get along. “We thought about having him give me away, but we thought that might be over the top,” she says.
Berkley is not a big gambler, but she and Lerner occasionally play Megabucks or the slots. “I’m fully confident that I will win the jackpot — so much so that I’ve already made a list of all the charities I will contribute to.”
She knows the Verandah menu by heart. She raves about the peach iced tea and its presentation. A large goblet of tea arrives like a piece of art — there are stunningly beautiful, big ice cubes and special sugar water on the side.
The only thing flashy about Berkley today is her large, sparkling butterfly necklace and matching earrings. Her camouflage-brown high-heel sandals and purse are by Stuart Weitzman.
Considering the community she represents, she has to look good. Her makeup is flawless, from the mascara to the perfectly painted reddish-pink nails to the matching lipstick that stays perfect no matter what she eats and drinks.
The events Berkley regularly attends are “all really fabulous,” she says. She recalls a recent night out at the Rio hotel, where a chef was raising money for disadvantaged children: “People were coming to me all night and telling me how great my face looked.” (The congresswoman had plastic surgery last summer to remove a flap of skin on her chin.)
Berkley is no namedropper. But she does count among her close friends tennis star Andre Agassi, singer Wayne Newton, with whom she is working to get a USO lounge at the Las Vegas Airport, and the famed Roy of Siegfried & Roy. Berkley visited him in the hospital on the night in 2003 when he was mauled by his 7-year-old white tiger.
She gets up to look at the brunch buffet, lifts many of the silver trays and then decides against it. She opts for her usual — the tuna sampler appetizer, which is tuna tartare, blackened sashimi and spicy tuna maki. Her aide orders the buffet, and Berkley asks him to sneak her a piece of bacon.
Cherry returns to the table with three hearty strips. Berkley looks elated. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly eat three!” she says. “Yummy, yummy, yummy.”
She begins talking about work, and her mood turns even brighter. “It’s an amazing community to represent,” she says. “I come home every weekend and I still can’t believe I represent Las Vegas in Congress. It’s such a kick.”
In her fourth congressional term, she says, serving in Washington “goes by like the blink of an eye. It’s as if you just got there and like you’ve been there your entire life.”
For her second course, the congresswoman orders a tomato and mozzarella salad, which is a spectacular mound of cubes.
Berkley has an undeniable joy to her spirit. It’s hard to imagine a moment when she is dreary. Anger and outrage are possibilities, but despair? Doubtful.
She is talking about how she feels when she gets off the plane at home each weekend. “All of a sudden a cloud lifts,” she says. “It’s such a different lifestyle. It’s just different from Washington.”
She says Washington is going through a rough time, and cites the fact that the International Relations Committee, on which she sits, voted nine times along party lines not to investigate pre-war intelligence.
“The only reason we’re not investigating is partisan politics,” she says.
Berkley says that she is sickened by the culture of D.C. fundraising and says the ethics committee ought to do its job. “I’ve been picking up a lot of checks lately, and that’s the God’s honest truth,” she says. “People are thrilled — for a good time, call Shelley.”
The congresswoman is Vegas through and through. When she was 12 and living in the Catskill Mountains, her parents put her, her sister and family dog in the car, attached a U-Haul with their belongings and drove across the country. The plan was that her father would be a waiter in Southern California.
“It was a hellacious trip,” she says. “My sister and I and the dog fought the whole way.”
When they stopped at Hoover Dam, there was a sign that said, “Come to Las Vegas. It’s only 30 miles away.”
So, says Berkley, “We stopped in Vegas for the night and checked into a motel on the Strip.” Her parents left the daughters and dog at the motel and went out. The following day, her father got a job as a waiter at the Sands Hotel (now the Venetian).
Berkley has never stepped foot inside the Venetian because she had a falling out with the owner, Sheldon Adelson, a GOP contributor she worked for at the Sands. Her father, 81, now works at the Greek Isles, a little hotel off the Strip that offers a tribute show to the Rat Pack.
Berkley punctuates her life story with high praise for our meal. “You know what we haven’t gotten is the bread with the wonderful dipping sauces,” she coos to the waitress. It arrives, and Berkley moves swiftly through two rounds.
After finishing some salad, but leaving a heap of fris�e lettuce on the plate, she returns to the bacon. Much like the city she represents, the congresswoman sees no reason not to indulge; she looks forward to the homemade doughnuts her aide will bring from the buffet for dessert.
She folds the bacon daintily, then finishes it aggressively.
Berkley says lawmakers have misconceptions about Las Vegas.
“I am amazed at the lack of understanding among my colleagues about the gaming industry in Las Vegas,” she says. “This is a real community with synagogues and churches and soccer on Saturday.”
Berkley wishes she could bring lawmakers such as Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), “who is clearly anti-gaming,” to Las Vegas “so he could see … an economy based on gaming can still have values. I don’t think he realizes that, and many others don’t either.”
I ask the congresswoman about the pornography industry. She laughs and retorts, “Whatever do you mean?” But she adds, “What consenting adults do behind closed doors is not my business. What goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
Berkley says she hates the men passing out sex fliers on the streets but reasons, “It’s a First Amendment right.”
She defends her city, and the sex, saying every city in America has its seamy side.
“I don’t know any city officials who could say with a straight face that they don’t have, oh, less than family-oriented activities going on,” she adds.
Berkley has never been to strip clubs. “Not that I have any objection morally,” she says. “I just think it would stop business. Oh, there’s the congresswoman.”
Berkley boasts that her father, with only a ninth-grade education, put two daughters through college and law school.
“This community is very much a part of my personality,” she says, pointing out that she has worked as vice president of legal affairs at the Sands, as a keno runner and as a cocktail waitress.
So did Berkley wear one of those skimpy waitress getups?
“You could call it a dress,” she says, laughing, then adds, “One summer I earned enough money to pay my entire way through law school. Yeah, that was a great summer.”