The Checkers Speech After 60 Years

The first-ever nationally televised address both saved and scarred young Richard Nixon, opening a new communications era and upending conventional political imagery.

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Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of one of the 20th century's most significant public addresses -- Richard Nixon's much-praised, oft-scorned "Checkers Speech." Delivered by then-Senator Nixon on the evening of September 23, 1952, in a dramatic attempt to answer charges that he abused a political expense fund, the half-hour address was the first American political speech to be televised live for a national audience and was watched or heard by some 60 million people. At stake was Nixon's place as General Dwight Eisenhower's running-mate on the Republican national ticket. The audience was the largest ever assembled.

Viewed through the prism of Nixon's roller-coaster career, the speech resonates today largely because of a single passage: the mention of Nixon's family dog, Checkers. Yet, a 1999 poll of leading communication scholars ranked the address as the sixth most important American speech of the 20th century -- close behind the soaring addresses of Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The "Checkers" speech wins this high rank for one stand-out reason: It marked the beginning of the television age in American politics. It also salvaged Nixon's career, plucking a last-second success from the jaws of abject humiliation, and profoundly shaped Nixon's personal and professional outlook, convincing him that television was a way to do an end-run around the press and the political "establishment."

The "Checkers Speech" foreshadowed the emergence of a new conservative populism in America, emphasizing appeals to social and cultural "identity" rather than economic interests.

Perhaps most interestingly, the address foreshadowed the emergence of a new conservative populism in America, emphasizing appeals to social and cultural "identity" rather than economic interests. The trend would ultimately end the domination of the New Deal Democratic coalition and create a base for Reagan Republicanism and its extended aftermath.

***

Nixon's began his speech that September evening by explaining the purposes of the fund that some of his supporters had set up after the 1950 election to help their new senator pay for continuing political expenses. The speech went on to emphasize the fund's record of prudent, transparent management. And Nixon ended the address by moving from defense to offense, describing the campaign against him as retribution for his recent effectiveness as an anti-communist crusader, including his role in exposing Alger Hiss as a likely Soviet spy, and delivering a blistering attack on the incumbent Truman administration.

It was, however, the middle passages of the speech, laying out his family's financial circumstances in excruciating -- and what Nixon accurately described as "unprecedented" -- detail that galvanized an instantaneous turnaround in popular opinion. It was the largest such swing ever. The discussion, later described as Nixon's "financial striptease," concluded with words that are still among his best-remembered -- touching a responsive chord among many millions, even as they lay bare his sense of embattled resentment:

That's what we have. And that's what we owe. It isn't very much. But Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we have got is honestly ours.

I should say this, that Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything.

One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don't they will probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election....

You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog ... black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're going to keep it.

***

When Whittaker Chambers published Witness, the mammoth memoir of his conversion from communism, he concluded by describing the Alger Hiss controversy -- in which he had played the central role as Hiss's accuser in 1948 -- as an epic social conflict. On one side were "the plain men and women of the nation" and on the other "those who affected to act, think and speak for them ... the 'best' people ... the enlightened and the powerful."

In Chambers' view, those who prosecuted Hiss, including Nixon (with his "somewhat martial Quakerism"), came mostly "from the wrong side of the railroad tracks." They were "humble people, strong in common sense, in common goodness, in common forgiveness, because all felt bowed together under the common weight of life."

The division between beleaguered commoners and a privileged elite had long been a familiar theme in American politics, normally used by Democrats to champion the cause of farmers and laborers against business-oriented Republicans. But Chambers' formulation recast the division in social and cultural terms, moving beyond pocketbook controversies to focus on "values," "lifestyles" and so-called "social issues." It heralded an emerging new strain of grassroots conservatism, and Nixon was quick to seize the rhetorical opportunity. Like Chambers, he saw mirrored in his personal struggles the dichotomy between sophisticated privilege and humble endeavor, and drew political and psychological sustenance from the support of what he would come to call "the silent majority."

When Witness was published in May of l952, Nixon reviewed it enthusiastically for The Saturday Review of Literature. The book topped The New York Times best seller list for three months that summer, and, on September 23, its outlook and some of its language made its way into Nixon's television address.

Nixon and his staff would always and only refer to it as "The Fund Speech," resenting the "Checkers" label as one that trivialized his remarks. Yet even supporters who came to consider the speech "an American masterpiece" would observe that it was less about his "Fund" as a symbol of alleged corruption than about "Checkers" as a symbol of middle American values.

Nixon, then 39, prepared the speech during a period he later described as the "hardest," "sharpest" and "most scarring" of his young life. His salvation, as he saw it, would lie with "millions of Americans," gathered around radios and television sets in homes across the land. "God must love the common people; He made so many of them," Chambers wrote in Witness, quoting Lincoln. Nixon's speech would highlight the same quotation.

The lasting accomplishment of the "Checkers" speech was not so much that Nixon explained his "Fund," nor even that he saved his candidacy. In the process of accomplishing those goals, he also took America's conventional political imagery and turned it upside down.

Scripps-Howard columnist Robert Ruark, saw the point immediately. "The sophisticates...sneer," he wrote just after the address, "but this came closer to humanizing the Republican Party than anything that has happened in my memory....Tuesday night the nation saw a little man, squirming his way out of a dilemma, and laying bare his most private hopes, fears, and liabilities. This time the common man was a Republican, for a change....[one who] suddenly placed the burden of old-style Republican aloofness on the Democrats."

If the Fund crisis presented Nixon with an extraordinary ordeal, it also handed him an extraordinary opportunity. New technology gave him the rapt attention of 60 million people; a recent firestorm of media criticism had positioned him as the ultimate underdog in an unprecedented drama. And yet the charges against him were entirely unproven.

Nixon's later, Watergate-logged history, is often read back into the 1952 context -- feeding a casual assumption that the Fund allegations must have had "something" to them. But neither journalistic investigation in that day nor historical research since have substantiated the charges that the money had been secretly gathered, improperly used or had purchased special influence.

In retrospect, some have even suggested that the crisis was somehow "manufactured," so weak was the case against Nixon. For one thing, private funds to cover travel and mailing expenses for elected officials were a common and widely accepted practice. And Nixon had taken pains to immunize his Fund from criticism.

As the Fund's organizer, Dana Smith, a Pasadena lawyer and Nixon's campaign treasurer, told prospective donors a year earlier, the "pool" of contributors would include only people "who have supported Dick from the start," preventing "second guessers" from making "any claim on the senator's interest." Contributions were limited to a maximum of $500, so that no one could think he was "entitled to special favors." The money, finally totaling $18,000, went into a regularly audited, openly-acknowledged trust account.

Rather than exemplifying the emerging, unhealthy influence of money in politics, as historian Roger Morris has suggested, the Nixon fund can plausibly be seen as an early attempt to respond to that problem.

When Nixon was first asked about the Fund on Sunday, September 14, he gave Smith's name and assumed the matter was ended. Nor is it surprising that his aides took the matter too casually at first, especially given their isolation on a campaign train in central California.

The first major Fund stories appeared on Thursday, September 18, and by Friday the candidate was responding to them at each whistle-stop, though initially with an attack on the motives of his critics that may have overshadowed his explanation of the Fund. An independent examination by prestigious legal and accounting firms was also set in motion -- and a list of contributors was prepared for public release.

Three factors allowed the Fund story to get out of control. The first was the inaccuracy of some journalists -- including their misuse of the word "secret." The New York Post headline screamed: "Secret Rich Men's Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond his Salary." It launched a tsunami of scandalized coverage.

A second factor in the escalating furor was the aggressiveness of political opponents (especially Democratic Party chairman Stephen Mitchell, who called immediately for Nixon's resignation). But the third and perhaps most important factor was the ambivalent reaction from General Eisenhower and his entourage, themselves traveling on a campaign train in the Midwest.

***

Press and public antagonism toward Nixon had mounted since his emergence as a national figure (though only a freshman congressman) during the Hiss controversy. The hot rhetoric of his successful 1950 Senate campaign in California against Helen Gahagan Douglas had sharply amplified his partisan image.

His oratorical fervor escalated as he became the GOP vice presidential nominee and party "point man," flaying the Democrats while Eisenhower stayed above the battle. As the contest heated up, he responded to his "hatchet-man" label by shouting: "If the record itself smears, let it smear. If the dry rot of corruption and communism ... can only be chopped out with a hatchet, then let's call for a hatchet."

Frustrated and frightened Democrats, after 20 years of White House control, were more than ready to seize on the Fund charges, given their relative inability to attack the heroic Eisenhower. The result, however, was that they rushed into a trap. As one historian has put it, the Democrats' handling of the Fund crisis was "criminally stupid." Interestingly, the one prominent Democrat who did not join in the frenzy was Adlai Stevenson, partly because his own private expense funds were so similar to Nixon's.

The reaction of Eisenhower's advisors was a puzzle to many. They had, after all, welcomed Nixon to the ticket two months earlier. Nixon had been an early Eisenhower supporter, helping ensure the general's narrow convention victory over Senator Robert Taft, the conservative hero.

Nonetheless, Eisenhower's closest associates were remarkably ready to believe the fund-related rumors. They had not known Nixon well beforehand -- some were put off by his occasional awkwardness in the urbane world of "drinks and jokes." They were mostly non-politicians, unaccustomed to campaign hyperbole and worried, too, that Nixon's anti-communist rhetoric linked him too closely to Senator Joseph McCarthy.

For the Eisenhower crew, moreover, the campaign was a moral crusade against "politics as usual," and stories about the Fund deeply unsettled them. The immediate charges, some warned, could be the tip of a larger iceberg.

When journalists on the Eisenhower train voted (rather unprofessionally) by a count of 40 to 2 for Nixon's removal, and when letters and telegrams began to run 3 to 1 against Nixon, the pressure on the general intensified. It culminated in an anti-Nixon editorial in the influential New York Herald Tribune, a strongly Republican newspaper published by Ike's good friend, Bill Robinson.

Eisenhower, characteristically, refused to be stampeded. But waiting itself exacted a high cost. And Ike's comment that his anti-corruption campaign must be "as clean as a hound's tooth" was widely regarded as a reproach, drowning out the senator's efforts to defend himself.

The hope -- and expectation -- of Eisenhower's advisors was that Nixon would simply withdraw from the ticket. California's arch-conservative senior senator, William Knowland, was asked to stand by as a substitute running mate. And Nixon seriously considered resigning. He would spare himself an enormous agony -- and avoid being remembered as the man who dragged down Eisenhower.

But two considerations argued the other way. First, resigning would give credence to the charges and hand his enemies a victory. The thought of yielding deeply offended him -- and it outraged his wife. Pat Nixon had opposed his accepting the vice presidential nomination, but her fierce sense of pride now came into play. Nixon must not "crawl," she urged in an anguished 2 a.m. conversation after they first learned of the devastating Herald-Tribune editorial.

Meanwhile, there were strong political arguments for hanging tough. While staying in the race meant risking blame for Ike's defeat, leaving the ticket would by no means ensure success; early polls showed the race to be a close contest. Nixon's resignation would offend conservatives and party regulars, and could drive away swing voters. And Nixon would still be the scapegoat.

Nixon decided to fight. He would agree, of course, to do the general's bidding, but he would not "draw up" his own "death warrant."

Presented by

Lee Huebner is a professor of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University. He is the former publisher of The International Herald Tribune and was a speechwriter in the Nixon White House.

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