Friday, December 28, 2012

More on Tricky Dick

I was talking about Garry Wills’s excellent Nixon Agonistes last month, a book written and published during Nixon’s first term as president (i.e., prior to Watergate). The book is about a lot more than Nixon, actually, providing a comprehensive examination of American history and politics as well as other aspects of the culture. It’s a dense, scholarly book, and I recommend it highly to anyone with an interest in the subject and/or era.

Have since picked up a few other Nixon-related titles, including a couple at a used bookstore this week. While I was there I saw taped to a bookcase that picture above featuring a creative use of a Nixon postage stamp (no shinola). Also have spent a few hours here and there listening to some of the Nixon tapes online and marveling at the wealth of other resources available regarding his presidency.

I’m not quite old enough to remember him as president, and so didn’t form any impressions of him until well after his fall. Such a complicated figure, endlessly fascinating yet almost never sympathetic (at least not to me).

In my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class we do discuss Nixon, primarily focusing on the much-repeated tale of his having been a successful poker player while serving in the Navy during World War II. James McManus frontloads his history of poker, Cowboys Full, with a catalogue of stories of U.S. presidents playing poker, and since we use McManus’s book as kind of a core text for the first part of the course, we focus a lot of energy early on thinking about some of those stories, a few of which come up again later on in the semester, too.

Earlier this week Bob Pajich pulled together a nice piece for Card Player in which he goes over the story of Nixon’s poker playing, titled “Men of Action -- Richard ‘The Big Bluffer’ Nixon.” Pajich draws on various sources including a 1983 interview in which Nixon addressed the idea that being a skillful poker player might be of special use to a president. Such is an argument advanced by McManus, too, at the start of Cowboys Full, and thus is one we consider as a class when we read and discuss that first chapter.

As Pajich points out, the place of poker in Nixon’s story is primarily confined to that early period prior to having begun his long, arduous ascent to the White House. It’s interesting, though, to overlay various poker-related strategies to his later political career, including the various ways he misplayed his “big stack” once he became president.

It was John Mitchell, Nixon’s first Attorney General who became part of the notorious Committee to Re-Elect the President (and who’d eventually serve prison time for his role in the Watergate cover-up), who characterized the many abuses of power during Nixon’s presidency as “the White House horrors.” And really, the more one reads and learns about all that was happening during that period, the more horrific it all seems. Talk about putting one’s “stamp” on the presidency (pun intended). It is amazing (and I guess, kind of heartening) to think how the U.S. government was able to survive a Nixon administration.

Like I say, though, the man himself is uncannily captivating. In his book, Wills characterizes Nixon as “the least ‘authentic’ man alive,” a “plastic man” who “does not exist outside his role, apart from politics.” “He lives in a cleared circle, an emotional DMZ, space razed and defoliated, so he cannot be ‘got to’ unexpectedly.” Referring to the ubiquitous Nixon masks that were already beginning to appear at the time of Nixon’s first inauguration (and would become especially popular during Watergate as a countercultural symbol), Wills describes the new president’s uneasy relationship with the youth of his day.

“At the 1969 inauguration,” Wills writes, “the streets were full of ashen Nixons. Kids in town to cause trouble wore crinkly white masks with that undeniable nose. But Nixon’s car sped past their jeering ranks, and, up on the reviewing stand, his face bunched in its instant toothed smile, so circumspect, so vulnerable.”

Then comes the devastating punchline: “He had this in common with the kids; he wears a Nixon mask.”

From the perspective of a poker player, being able to interact with others while existing within an “emotional DMZ” might seem favorable. Always being “circumspect” with regard to how others view you -- i.e., being cognizant of one’s own “image” and how others are responding to it -- is a much-needed ability at the tables, too. I’ve even heard poker players sometimes talk about playing as though they were wearing a “mask,” that is, kind of employing a bit of self-delusion as part of a strategy to prevent revealing too much to others.

But Nixon was “vulnerable,” too (surmises Wills), and while he may have consistently won in those stud games with fellow Naval officers -- and later on, as well, in the other “games” he played within the GOP establishment and the American voters -- there was a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt in his play, too, especially after he took office as president.

I was saying before how I might like to write some sort of short monograph about “Tricky Dick” that focused on his poker playing and perhaps tried to discuss some of these later episodes through the lens of poker. I may still do something along these lines, although now I’m thinking I’ll more likely try to create a kind of textbook for my class that looks at poker in American culture more broadly, perhaps with a Nixon chapter along the way. (Such a book would certainly attract a wider audience, I think.)

So I’ll add working that project to the growing list of goals for the new year. Sort of feeling like Nixon a little bit, who also tended to study and plan a lot before acting. Such was how he learned poker, working diligently away from the table to devise strategies he would then later employ. And as a politician, too, he studied and developed a complicated theory of leadership he then carried to his duties.

But there was a pretty severe disconnect between theory and practice in the latter case for Nixon, I think, wherein the application of his ideas failed. Hopefully I’ll avoid that misstep in the execution of my plans.

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Blogger Paycheck said...

Fantastic article and some very good writing. Also, thanks for the mention. -- Pajich

1/09/2013 8:04 AM  

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