Thursday, August 22, 2013

Cards and Communism

My ongoing Nixon studies have led me to spend time lately reading about the “red scare” days of the late 1940s and 1950s, that period during which Tricky Dick launched his political career. Like many of the day, Nixon presented himself early on as a strident opponent of Communism thanks especially to his service as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee and his prominent role in the Alger Hiss case.

It was a popular and winning strategy then for many political candidates to portray themselves as fighters of Communism while casting their opponents as either soft on Communism or “reds” themselves. From this distance, it might be hard to appreciate both the rise in popularity of Communism in the U.S. during the years leading up to WWII, and also the hysteria associated with identifying and casting out those suspected of adhering to the ideology afterwards. But it’s impossible to think about U.S. politics of that era -- or, really, the culture in general -- without recognizing the importance of that issue.

In his memoirs, Nixon describes himself as having been basically ambivalent about Communism until 1946 and Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech (delivered after a somewhat famous poker game, incidentally). Then, of course, as happened with many, Nixon becomes fairly consumed by fighting this enemy within. The Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy would of course become the legislator most wholly defined by that fight, his identity being absorbed into a counter-ideology of its own, “McCarthyism.”

My interest in Nixon was first fueled by his poker playing, and as it happens McCarthy was also apparently an avid poker player. Around the time Nixon was attending law school at Duke during the 1930s, McCarthy was in law school at Marquette University and it was there he is said to have devoted a lot of time playing poker with his Delta Theta Phi fraternity brothers.

In When Even Angels Wept: The Senator Joseph McCarthy Affair (1973), historian Lately Thomas wrote about McCarthy’s competitiveness in school, with boxing and poker being a couple of the contexts in which he would often display the trait. Thomas writes of how McCarthy earned respect from others thanks to his intensely “demonic poker playing.”

“The game was no pastime to him, but every hand a life-and-death struggle,” writes Thomas. “He bluffed so outrageously it was impossible to outguess him, and consequently, when he won, he frequently won big.” He continued to play after graduating and during his first few months as a struggling lawyer “his poker playing managed to keep him going.”

Later on after McCarthy was elected to the senate in 1946 (the same year Nixon won his first seat in the House), it sounds like he experienced a kind of letdown after having accomplished the goal of becoming a senator. Thomas suggests “he kept up his addiction to roughhouse poker” in order to satisfy the urge to compete while feeling otherwise “boxed in.”

“Since achieving his goal, he had been without direction," writes Thomas, "flitting restlessly from the frivolous to the dubious... and finding the most congenial outlet for his fiercely competitive energy in marathon sessions of cutthroat poker.”

But as with Nixon, Churchill’s speech gave McCarthy a new focus and before too long a volatile kind of celebrity as he took up the anti-Communist cause with greater enthusiasm than anyone, being as “demonic” in that pursuit as he’d been with poker. Not only did his new campaign provide an outlet for what proved a dangerous, high stakes variety of competition, but also one in which he would engage in a lot of big-time bluffing, too.

There’s more to the story of McCarthy’s poker playing. If you’re curious, a column from Poker Player Newspaper about him from several years ago shares some more anecdotes from his card-playing career, including one revealing him to be a willing cheater, too.

One of the ways poker gets identified as an especially “American” game has to do with the way the game kind of mimics the system of free enterprise and other hallmarks of capitalism that were understood by many half a century ago to have been threatened by Communism. Not such a coincidence, I guess, to find vociferous opponents of Communism like McCarthy and Nixon to have been devoted poker players, too.

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