Friday, October 05, 2012

“We’re not talking now about a poker game” (Kennedy & Nixon)

Was pulling together a new “Pop Poker” column for PokerListings this week regarding presidential debates and how they so readily get compared to heads-up poker matches. The piece went up yesterday, if you’re curious.

I’m old enough to be awestruck by how quickly and simply we can access information these days. That is to say, I remember how much effort and energy it would have taken to research and write even a casual piece about the history of presidential debates without the ease afforded by today’s internet.

With just a few keystrokes we can search full transcripts of every debate there ever was (since 1960, anyway, when they began to be televised). Heck, we can watch most of them, too.

Anyhow, as I say, I was digging through various items this week and found myself distracted for a while reading some speeches and other material related to the 1960 presidential campaign, the one that ultimately pitted John F. Kennedy versus Richard Nixon.

Nixon we all know was a serious poker player prior to embarking on his political career. The story of him winning significant sums while serving in the Navy and in fact funding his first Congressional campaign with his winnings has been told many times over. And while Nixon often tried to downplay his poker-playing experience and ability once he assumed public office, he nonetheless made references to poker constantly in speeches and communications before, during, and after his presidency.

Anyhow, when looking at some of the speeches Kennedy and Nixon were delivering during the final weeks leading up to the 1960 election, I noticed curious bit of back-and-forthing in which both candidates brought up poker, albeit metaphorically.

The first reference came from Kennedy in a relatively short speech delivered at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington, DC about a week before that first debate in late September. In that speech Kennedy mostly addressed foreign policy and the Communist threat, with just a few quick words about the economy coming in near the end.

Regarding the former, Kennedy argued that “the next President must promptly send to the Congress a special message requesting the funds and the authority necessary to give us a nuclear capacity second to none, making us invulnerable to any attack.... Only then can we get Mr. Khrushchev and the Chinese Communists to talk about disarmament, because having the second best defensive hand in the 1960s will be like having the second best poker hand.”

Six days later Kennedy and Nixon had that first debate in Chicago, the one in which Nixon’s “five o’clock shadow” is said by many to have doomed him. No poker metaphors were employed that night.

About a week after that (and before the second debate), Nixon gave a speech in early October in Elizabeth, New Jersey in which he touched on several points, including what he viewed as differences between himself and his opponent.

After bringing up Kennedy and another speech he’d recently made, Nixon stepped back and kind of self-reflexively tried to characterize the whole process of candidates going out and trying to convince voters in this fashion.

“You know, it’s the custom when presidential candidates travel through a country, a custom which is often cartooned about and editorialized about and written about a great deal, to see who can outpromise the other,” said Nixon.

“One fellow comes in and says, ‘I promise you this,’ and the next one comes in and says ‘I raise you,’ and the third one comes in and says ‘I call you.’ But whatever the case may be, we’re not talking now about a poker game. We’re talking about what’s best for the country.”

Nixon isn’t specifically referring to Kennedy’s use of a poker analogy to characterize the Cold War arms race, although given the close proximity of the speeches it feels like Nixon is perhaps trying to suggest that there’s something unsavory about comparing nuclear conflict to a card game.

I’m reading between the lines, of course. And as I say, Nixon himself so often references poker himself when making various points it becomes all the more curious to see him sound as though he might be trying to criticize doing so.

Anyhow, that was just one of several items I found myself lingering over this week. I’m starting to think it could be fun to pull together a short monograph about Nixon and poker, telling the story of his poker playing and compiling all of his references to the game.

Such a fascinating, complicated, and wildly-flawed figure was Nixon -- and so comprehensively chronicled, too. (I wonder, for instance, how many times poker came up during those 3,700 hours’ worth of tapes?)

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