Johnny, We’re Startin’ to Know You

It was about fifty-five years ago that — having spent two years in college to no discernible purpose — I opted for military service.

My mother, in the way of all mothers in all times, objected. (One of my high school teachers told us the Army was “Only half as bad as your mother says, and only half as good as the recruiting sergeant says.”) Still, most of Korea was quiet at the time, the US was not involved in open conflict anywhere else, and it seemed unlikely I would be sent into battle. So she relented.

My father was not so easy a read, then or any other time. He offered no objection, however, and only one piece of advice. The advice served me well in the Army, and continues to do so. It has even helped me understand John McCain.

This was the advice, approximately as he presented it.

  • “You’ll run into a good deal of gambling in the barracks, and no doubt you’ll join in. If you lose at poker, that’s okay; it’s a complicated game, and it takes time to learn. I’ll help you if you run short. But if you lose at craps, I don’t want to hear about it. There’s no skill in throwing the dice. That’s a fool’s game.”

With that in mind, consider recent articles about McCain and gambling. First, the lede of an article from Time magazine, three months ago, when the campaigns were much younger.

The casino craps player is a social animal, a thrill seeker who wants not just to win but to win with a crowd. Unlike cards or a roulette wheel, well-thrown dice reward most everyone on the rail, yielding a collective yawp that drowns out the slots. It is a game for showmen, Hollywood stars and basketball legends with girls on their arms. It is also a favorite pastime of the presumptive Republican nominee for President, John McCain.

Bright, colorful, Time-y prose, with nothing to criticize but that phrase, “well-thrown dice.” As if to suggest it was skill rather than blind luck. But the point is not skill, it’s thrill. And that’s the critical issue. McCain the gambler is McCain the thrill-seeker. Just as McCain the Navy pilot was McCain the thrill-seeker.

Refer now to a New York Times story three days ago.

Senator John McCain was on a roll. In a room reserved for high-stakes gamblers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, he tossed $100 chips around a hot craps table. When the marathon session ended around 2:30 a.m., the Arizona senator and his entourage emerged with thousands of dollars in winnings.

A lifelong gambler, Mr. McCain takes risks, both on and off the craps table. He was throwing dice that night not long after his failed 2000 presidential bid, in which he was skewered by the Republican Party’s evangelical base, opponents of gambling. Mr. McCain was betting at a casino he oversaw as a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and he was doing so with the lobbyist who represents that casino, according to three associates of Mr. McCain.

First — most obvious and most damaging, at least by inference — what would you say were the odds that Senator McCain, in that setting, would lose money? What chance was there that the casino operators would let Senator McCain leave their place any way but a winner? A gambler McCain surely is, but that time, I think the chance of losing was nil.

Even though he’s a gambler himself, McCain got a lot of credit for helping bring down Jack Abramoff — the the Times‘ phrase, “the disgraced Republican Indian gambling lobbyist who became a national symbol of the pay-to-play culture in Washington.” That began a major overhaul of lobbying laws, for which McCain has taken credit. Again, the Times article.

“I’ve fought lobbyists who stole from Indian tribes,” the senator said in his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination this month.

But interviews and records show that lobbyists and political operatives in Mr. McCain’s inner circle played a behind-the-scenes role in bringing Mr. Abramoff’s misdeeds to Mr. McCain’s attention — and then cashed in on the resulting investigation. The senator’s longtime chief political strategist, for example, was paid $100,000 over four months as a consultant to one tribe caught up in the inquiry, records show.

It’s a staple of gambling stories and gangland movies that one of the “cleanest” pay-offs is letting someone win big at the gambling table. And like Annina in Casablanca, the winner need not even realize the house is being generous, or for what reason. Just take the money and leave. So what are the chances that J-Mac is ever, at any US casino, going to walk away a big loser? Wouldn’t it be interesting to look at his total take from gambling over the years, with reference in each instance to whether or not the house was subject to federal regulations and legislation?

Just asking.

Before I leave the topic, one more item, going back to the Time article I first mentioned. McCain’s partying was not limited to gambling, but that apparently has been the enduring element.

Over time he gave up the drinking bouts, but he never quite kicked the periodic yen for dice. In the past decade, he has played on Mississippi riverboats, on Indian land, in Caribbean craps pits and along the length of the Las Vegas Strip. Back in 2005 he joined a group of journalists at a magazine-industry conference in Puerto Rico, offering betting strategy on request. “Enjoying craps opens up a window on a central thread constant in John’s life,” says John Weaver, McCain’s former chief strategist, who followed him to many a casino. “Taking a chance, playing against the odds.” Aides say McCain tends to play for a few thousand dollars at a time and avoids taking markers, or loans, from the casinos, which he has helped regulate in Congress. “He never, ever plays on the house,” says Mark Salter, a McCain adviser. The goal, say several people familiar with his habit, is never financial. He loves the thrill of winning and the camaraderie at the table.

Only recently have McCain’s aides urged him to pull back from the pastime. In the heat of the G.O.P. primary fight last spring, he announced on a visit to the Vegas Strip that he was going to the casino floor. When his aides stopped him, fearing a public relations disaster, McCain suggested that they ask the casino to take a craps table to a private room, a high-roller privilege McCain had indulged in before. His aides, with alarm bells ringing, refused again, according to two accounts of the discussion.

Two of those verbs strike me — in context — as a tad too gentle. McCain “announced” he was going to the casino floor, then “suggested” a table in a private room. But look at at the response. His aides first “stopped” him, then “refused.” Very strong reaction to a man who merely suggests an evening’s entertainment. “Stop” and “refuse” are what you do to an addict demanding a fix.

And in closing, one other question. It was “in the heat of the GOP primary fight” that he made a visit to the Las Vegas strip. Exactly how much politicking was necessary in Nevada at the time? And was the Vegas strip the place to do it?

Again, just asking.

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