Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Republican Candidates’ Cards on the Table

GOP presidential candidates as playing cardsHappened to catch that debate of the Republican presidential candidates last night on CNN. Seems like they’ve had about 10 of these suckers already.

Last night’s debate, dubbed the “Western Republican Leadership Conference (WRLC)/CNN Debate,” was held in Las Vegas at the Venetian, and thus it wasn’t surprising to see the opening montage search the setting for metaphors to introduce the show.

Check out the first couple of minutes:

Was kind of uncanny, actually, to switch over there and during that opening sequence hear all of those echoes from my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class.

We’ve spent much of the first half of the semester learning about the history of poker -- and American history, too. Thus we have discussed at length how the game spread westward, kind of absorbing and illustrating all of those “American frontier” themes that the country’s expansion out west in the 19th century often evokes. And we’ve also talked some about the many U.S. presidents who were poker players, and how some have argued the game actually offers a genuinely meaningful proving ground for would-be leaders.

In fact, media/political commentator Jeff Greenfield made that latter point after last week’s debate in which the candidates actually sat around a circular table. “Next time, have the moderator deal cards,” said Greenfield “Then watch them play a few hands of poker. (Not Texas Hold ’Em—unfair advantage to Texas Gov. Rick Perry.) Few better measurements of shrewdness and temperament than how someone plays cards.”

From the earlier GOP debate (10/11/11)I missed Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” making a similar poker reference in his breakdown of last week’s GOP debate, but B.J. Nemeth told me on Twitter last night how Stewart had said it looked like “the world’s most boring poker game.” (That pic is from that 10/11/11 debate; last night they were at podiums again.)

In that opening montage last night, there were initial references to the western U.S. as “the American frontier” and how the west represented “a historic land of opportunity.” Then came the Vegas-related references, “a city where dreams are made... and crushed.”

There was the Stratosphere and the “Welcome to Vegas” sign and a roulette wheel providing predictable imagery. Then, when the seven candidates were introduced, we saw cards and chips and what looked like a poker table.

GOP presidential candidates as playing cardsThe narration referred to a “dramatic reshuffling of the pack” pushing Herman Cain up among the “leaders of the pack” with Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. Meanwhile Newt Gingrinch, Ron Paul, and Michele Bachmann were characterized as “wild cards,” while Rick Santorum was “eager to beat the odds.”

The candidates’ faces appeared on the cards themselves. When I noted on Twitter that the debate was being introduced via poker metaphors, Oskar Garcia who covers gambling/Vegas for the Associated Press responded to say the imagery also evoked other gambling games such as blackjack or baccarat. A good point, but I’d bet those compiling the little sequence (and most viewers) were probably thinking poker.

Poker actually was evoked by the candidates themselves at an earlier debate during an exchange between Romney and Perry. When the subject of Texas’ relative growth during Perry’s tenure as governor came up at that debate, Romney suggested Perry had been dealt a good hand, so to speak, and thus had succeeded more because of luck than skill.

“If you’re dealt four aces, that doesn’t make you necessarily a great poker player,” said Romney of Perry. I wrote about that exchange in one of my “Community Cards” columns over on the Epic Poker blog, if you’re interested to read more.

So we keep hearing about poker at these debates, with the many references further proving the point of my class that poker is, in fact, an important part of American culture. But despite the hopes of some in our little poker community, the game itself -- particularly the topic of possibly legislating online poker -- isn’t really being discussed.

No, poker itself isn’t being addressed, although the game keeps providing metaphors and symbols that others -- and even the candidates themselves -- are using to try to distinguish them from one another.

That said, they all mostly still seem like a pack of cards.

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