Friday, December 05, 2008

People Have Got to Know Whether Their President Was a Poker Player

David Frost & Richard NixonHeard something on National Public Radio on Monday -- a reference to poker, actually -- and meant to pass it along here but got distracted by other items this week. It was the afternoon interview show “Talk of the Nation,” hosted by Neal Conan. He had Ron Howard on to talk about his new film, Frost/Nixon, which comes out today.

I’m curious about this film, based on the riveting play by Peter Morgan which dramatizes the famous series of interviews the ex-president gave to David Frost on PBS back in 1977. Am more interested, actually, to see the new DVD that just came out this week titled Frost/Nixon: The Original Watergate Interviews that compiles footage from the actual interviews, and I believe also includes some added commentary by Frost regarding the interviews’ historical significance.

In any case, Howard was interesting enough talking about Nixon and the unprecedented nature of the interviews. They went on for 28 hours, shown on several nights during the spring of 1977.

Toward the very end of the conversation, Howard says how “it’s kind of interesting to me that he [Nixon] struggled so much with television throughout his career.” Howard then relates the much-told story of the first 1960 presidential debate between Nixon and Kennedy, the one in which Nixon and his “five o’clock shadow” did not fare well on television. Most who watched the debate apparently felt Kennedy had won hands down, while those who listened on the radio tended to favor Nixon.

Says Howard, “the thought that he [believed he] could rehabilitate himself through a series of lengthy interviews again . . . reflects the complexity of the guy, maybe his hubris, or something.” The problem, though, according to Howard, was that Nixon “was not necessarily a very good liar.”

“His face reflected whatever he was feeling, and you can see when he’s uncomfortable. You can see when he is forcing a laugh, or when he’s angry. And I think those around him were always kind of on eggshells knowing exactly how he felt, whatever he was saying, because, you know . . . he was probably not a great poker player.”

“Probably not,” replies Neal Conan with a chuckle.

An interesting point, but, in fact, Nixon was by all accounts a terrific poker player. Indeed, of all the U.S. presidents his reputation as a player ranks near or at the top of the list.

The story of Nixon’s poker-playing exploits has been told many times in many places -- how he learned draw poker as a Naval officer during World War II, how he routinely crushed his fellow officers, earning somewhere around $6,000 in two months while posted on a ship in the Pacific, and how he financed his first political campaign (his run for a U.S. House seat in 1946) with his poker winnings.

As he ascended up the political ladder, Nixon gave up poker and whenever asked about it always tried to minimize his prowess at the game. In his autobiography, Nixon talks a little about poker, pointing out how he learned eventually “that the people who have the cards are usually the ones who talk the least and the softest; those who are bluffing tend to talk loudly and give themselves away.”

Having such a background -- and understanding of bluffing -- makes it all the more intriguing to think about how unsuccessful Nixon was at lying his way out of Watergate. Another example of the “complexity of the guy,” or, more likely his “hubris.”

But Nixon was a good poker player, let there be no doubt of that. And his example illustrates something most of us who play already know. While one’s poker skills certainly have some relationship to how a person acts (and interacts) away from the table, being a good poker player doesn’t necessarily mean one is going to be good or successful in other areas of life.

(Incidentally, that post title obviously alludes to a famous Nixon line, as I’m sure you noticed.)

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Blogger Gene said...

How could you make a film about Nixon and not know he was a good poker player? Not only is it a fairly well-known biographical fact, it provdes some insght into his psyche.

12/05/2008 8:41 PM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

I agree -- was odd to hear Howard say that. Maybe he had some vague idea Nixon might've played poker, but never looked into it (?).

12/05/2008 10:22 PM  

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