For a long time now I’ve been compiling lots of anecdotes and other information related to Nixon’s poker playing, building toward what I am planning to be a short book about the subject. Many don’t even know “Tricky Dick” played poker. Those who do perhaps are aware of the much-repeated story of his supposedly learning the game as a Naval officer when serving in the Pacific during World War II. Some even know that he won enough during those games against fellow officers to help fund his first Congressional campaign in 1946.
The truth is Nixon learned poker well before his military service, and also played the game afterwards as well. Poker comes up constantly in Nixon’s story as well during his campaigns, in his speeches and writings, and throughout his political career up to and including the Watergate scandal and his resignation.
There’s enough there, I think, to make for an interesting book, one that not only would share more details about Nixon’s poker playing than are generally known but also explore how his political thinking was often shaped by poker-like strategy, sometimes overtly.
The more I read about Nixon (and of his own writings), the more I’ve come to understand his “zero sum” mindset whereby practically everything he did or said had political implications, with every word or action supporting his view that in practically every context one person’s gain necessarily depends on another’s loss. Such was how he personally interacted with others, I think, and also, of course, how he conducted himself in campaigns and when governing.
Looking at his presidency in such terms thus causes his role during Watergate to resemble that of a stubborn poker player unwilling to let go of a losing hand, blundering through it with a sequence of poor decisions, then finally -- well after having committed essentially all of his chips -- letting go of his cards.
It’s definitely possible to get carried away with the analogy, but I think there’s some genuine insight to be gained from looking at Nixon’s life and career through the lens of poker. As I was remarking yesterday, poker is endlessly interesting, even to many who don’t even play the game. And Nixon is just plain fascinating, with no end to the amount of material available for those pursuing such “studies.”
Let me share one small anecdote. While the hearings of the U.S. Senate Watergate Committee were televised, with PBS actually showing everything from mid-May 1973 right up through early August, there isn’t a lot of footage floating around aside from certain highlights. (Video exists, but isn’t just a click away.) But full transcripts of all 250 hours or so are readily available for those curious about such things.
McCord was asked repeatedly by various senators why he would involve himself in what he well knew to be a criminal activity, and his response was that he understood the break-ins, photo-taking, and wire-tapping to have been okayed by then Attorney General John Mitchell -- and, by extension, by Nixon, too. “The Attorney General, the White House itself, and in my personal opinion, the President of the United States, I felt, had set into motion this operation,” says McCord.
While McCord admits that others would have had political reasons for wanting to gather information from the rival campaign’s headquarters, he understood the operation to have been motivated by national security, prompted by concerns about demonstrations occurring at the upcoming conventions in Miami and suspicions that the Democrats may in fact have been “working closely with violence groups.”
Reading from a memo he prepared titled “Sanction of the Watergate Operation,” McCord shares how the Committee for the Re-Election of the President’s mission included “obtain[ing] information regarding not only political intelligence but also regarding violence-oriented groups who would be planning violence against the committee in Washington, and later at the August convention site, thereby endangering the lives and property of the committee and its personnel.” The riots at the 1968 DNC in Chicago were “uppermost in everyone’s minds” he says, as were more recent threats and actual attacks, thus making the threat more “realistic” than “theoretical.”
The memo also includes an acknowledgement of the political motive, however, noting in particular how the Republicans believed the Democrats were gathering intelligence on them, thus casting their efforts as simply a response in kind. McCord doesn’t ever present that argument as a justification for his own participation in the break-ins, but rather shares it to help round out the larger picture for the Senate Watergate Committee regarding why the break-ins occurred.
“Now, we also had word from CRP sources alleging that the McGovern committee had ‘a pipeline’ directly into the offices of the Committee To Re-Elect the President in Washington,” explains McCord. “Allegedly, they were feeding out, on a regular basis, policy position papers, that is, plans and strategy, which were rather important to the success of a candidate's campaign.”
McCord then punctuates that observation with an analogy.
“If the other side is reading your poker hand, he can negate your plans.”
The comparison suggests how the gathering of “political intelligence” was looked upon as being not unlike a game of poker in which an opponent has demonstrated a willingness to cheat, thus making it imperative to defend against such cheating and perhaps to cheat oneself in order to be able to compete. Nixon would make a similar point subsequently when commenting on Watergate during his post-Presidency, pointing out how other administrations had performed similar acts of political espionage as a kind of justification of what happened during his own.
The project has been delayed somewhat thanks to another possible book I might be writing -- one even more ambitious that may be happening sooner than later (stay tuned for that). In the meantime, I look forward to reading others’ reflections this week as we approach the anniversary of the biggest fold a U.S. president ever made.