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  • Written by W. Joseph Campbell, Professor Emeritus of Communication, American University School of Communication
One memorable speech can turn around a faltering campaign − how Nixon did it with his ‘Checkers’ talk

Twenty years before Watergate[1], then-Sen. Richard Nixon’s national political ambitions were in peril. He was accused of dipping into a private, $18,000 slush fund to cover expenses, and doubts about the propriety of his conduct intensified as the 1952 presidential election campaign unfolded.

Nixon was able to preserve what became a long career in national politics – and kept the vice presidential spot on that year’s Republican national ticket – with a talk on television and radio in which Checkers, his family’s cocker spaniel, figured memorably.

What is known as Nixon’s “Checkers” speech[2] was without precedent, and it came at a moment when television was just beginning to have an impact on American political life.

Although popular memory of the speech has faded, the episode offers a reminder, perhaps loosely relevant these days to President Joe Biden, about how political firestorms – and demands that a controversial candidate quit[3] a national party ticket – can in some circumstances be neutralized.

The “Checkers[4]” case is also a reminder that a whiff of scandal isn’t necessarily destructive to a political campaign.

A man lies in a reclining chair and holds a dog up to his face in a black and white photo.
Then-vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon relaxes at home in Washington with his cocker spaniel, Checkers. Bettmann/Contributor[5]

Nixon at a crossroads

The 1952 Republican ticket, led by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, won a 39-state landslide[6] over the Democrats’ presidential nominee, Gov. Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois. The sweep[7] of the Eisenhower-Nixon victory was an outcome no pollster had anticipated, as I note in my 2024 book, “Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections[8].”

But a Republican victory hardly seemed assured in mid-September 1952, when the New York Post reported[9] that Nixon, then 39, had benefited from a private fund set up by supporters to cover expenses incurred as a U.S. senator from California.

The then-liberal Post said the fund was supported by a “millionaire’s club” of Californians and was “devoted exclusively to the financial comfort of Sen. Nixon.” The nest egg allowed Nixon to live in style well beyond what a senator’s salary – $12,500 annually, or about $145,000 these days – could support, the Post alleged.

Nixon was caught unawares and denied wrongdoing. He was slow to realize that the Post’s disclosure threatened his political career. Not only did it raise doubts about the senator’s judgment, the report appeared to contradict Eisenhower’s pledge to crack down on scandal, corruption and unethical conduct in Washington.

Nixon not only seemed to be “damaged goods,” as Tom Wicker wrote in his biography of Nixon[10]. He was suddenly “a liability” to Eisenhower, a five-star general and America’s preeminent military hero of World War II.

Calls for Nixon to vacate the Republican ticket arose quickly, emanating even from within the Republican party and its Eastern establishment wing. Former New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, a two-time loser[11] in campaigns for the U.S. presidency, urged Nixon to quit.

Nixon soon was the target of jeering audiences at campaign stops. Many reporters covering the candidate figured he would have to quit. Demands that he do so began appearing in newspapers that supported Eisenhower.

The Washington Post, for example, said Nixon’s quitting “would provide the Republican party an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate the sincerity of its campaign against loose conduct and corruption in government.” The New York Herald Tribune, a voice of Eastern establishment Republicanism, called for Nixon “to make a formal offer of withdrawal from the ticket.”

Eisenhower, meanwhile, was lukewarm about Nixon’s remaining on the ticket and extended little more than half-hearted support to his running mate as the controversy deepened. He called on Nixon to make full disclosure about the fund.

A turnaround with Checkers

Nixon’s response was to plead his case to Americans by radio and television from a broadcast studio in Los Angeles. His half-hour speech[12] was paid for by the Republican National Committee and aired live on Sept. 23, 1952, five days after the New York Post’s report about the fund.

Nixon during the broadcast was by turns adamant, self-pitying and partisan. His wife, Pat, was seated nearby in an armchair that was mostly out of camera range. She looked stricken the few times the camera turned her way.

Nixon emphasized his modest background and lifestyle, mentioning that his wife did not own a mink coat, an artifact of luxury at the time. Instead, Nixon said, she wore a “respectable Republican cloth coat.”

He described in detail his possessions and liabilities, saying, “It isn’t very much. But Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we’ve got is honestly ours.”

Nixon said he had granted no “special favors” to the 76 contributors who donated as much as $1,000 to the fund, which had been set up two years before. Its singular purpose, Nixon asserted, was to help cover expenses “that I did not think should be charged to the taxpayers of the United States.”

The fund’s single largest expenditures were reported[13] to be $6,100 for stationery and $3,430 for travel. “Not one cent” went for personal use, Nixon said.

Little of what Nixon described seemed to support the New York Post’s claims of a fund set up for his “financial comfort.”

Nearly 20 minutes into his remarks, Nixon invoked Checkers, a passage that helped win for the speech an enduring place in American political lore.

A Nixon supporter in Texas had gifted the pet to Nixon’s family after he heard a radio broadcast in which Pat Nixon said her daughters would like to have a dog.

Not long afterward, Nixon said during the speech, “we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?

"It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate … sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted. And our little girl Tricia, the six-year-old, named it Checkers,” Nixon said.

“And you know,” he added, “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 are going to keep” Checkers.

Two men in suits gesture toward each other in a black and white photo. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon in January 1952 in New York. Bettmann/Contributor[14]

A ‘political masterstroke’

The writer George D. Gopen[15], in assessing the speech years later[16], said the reference to Checkers allowed Nixon’s daughters metaphorically to “burst onto the scene, unseen, to dominate our consciousness, playing with their dog.”

“That is great thinking and really good writing,” he wrote.

In the immediate aftermath of the speech, Robert Ruark[17], a syndicated columnist, wrote that[18] Nixon had effectively “stripped himself naked for all the world to see, and he brought the missus and the kids and the dog … into the act.” Nixon had aligned himself with mainstream Americans in what Wicker described as a “political masterstroke.”

Nixon closed by inviting viewers and listeners to help decide his political fate by sending letters and telegrams not to Eisenhower but to members of the Republican National Committee. Tell them, Nixon said, “whether you think I should stay on or whether I should get off. And whatever their decision is, I will abide by it.”

Americans responded by the tens of thousands, expressing support for Nixon. Members of the Republican National Committee voted without objection to keep him on the ticket.

The outcome was perhaps encouraged by less-sensational disclosures at the time that Stevenson, the Democratic presidential nominee, had supported supplementary income funds for appointees to state positions in Illinois and that his running mate, Sen. John Sparkman, had kept his wife on his congressional payroll[19] for 10 years.

The day after the speech, Eisenhower met Nixon in West Virginia and declared his running mate vindicated. “Why, you’re my boy!” the Herald Tribune quoted the general as saying.

A political disaster had been averted. Nixon served two terms as vice president in Eisenhower’s administrations and twice won the presidency before resigning in August 1974[20] over the Watergate scandal[21].

Nixon’s rescuing himself in the 1952 election was notable and perhaps instructive, suggesting that a creative, high-profile and timely response can prevent sensational allegations from overwhelming a beleaguered candidacy[22], much as they nearly did to Nixon.

The lessons of 1952, of course, are only superficially germane to Biden’s predicament in the aftermath of his recent disastrous debate[23] with former President Donald Trump. Even though the long-ago Checkers speech offers no sure road map to surviving a political crisis, it does represent intriguing context to 2024.

It is certainly noteworthy that Biden in recent days has sought out a variety of audiences[24], including those of a television network[25], in an urgent gambit to preserve his candidacy for reelection.

Although Biden rejects their[26] findings, polls[27] make clear Biden’s not succeeding[28], that a Checkers-like redux is not in the offing.

References

  1. ^ before Watergate (www.bbc.com)
  2. ^ “Checkers” speech (www.presidency.ucsb.edu)
  3. ^ candidate quit (www.reuters.com)
  4. ^ Checkers (www.washingtonpost.com)
  5. ^ Bettmann/Contributor (www.gettyimages.com)
  6. ^ 39-state landslide (www.presidency.ucsb.edu)
  7. ^ sweep (news.bbc.co.uk)
  8. ^ Lost in a Gallup: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections (www.ucpress.edu)
  9. ^ reported (nypost.com)
  10. ^ biography of Nixon (books.google.com)
  11. ^ a two-time loser (web.archive.org)
  12. ^ half-hour speech (www.youtube.com)
  13. ^ were reported (timesmachine.nytimes.com)
  14. ^ Bettmann/Contributor (www.gettyimages.com)
  15. ^ George D. Gopen (www.georgegopen.com)
  16. ^ assessing the speech years later (www.americanbar.org)
  17. ^ Robert Ruark (nclhof.org)
  18. ^ wrote that (www.baltimoresun.com)
  19. ^ kept his wife on his congressional payroll (timesmachine.nytimes.com)
  20. ^ resigning in August 1974 (mediamythalert.com)
  21. ^ Watergate scandal (theconversation.com)
  22. ^ beleaguered candidacy (www.msn.com)
  23. ^ recent disastrous debate (www.cnn.com)
  24. ^ variety of audiences (abcnews.go.com)
  25. ^ television network (abcnews.go.com)
  26. ^ rejects their (urldefense.com)
  27. ^ findings, polls (urldefense.com)
  28. ^ not succeeding (urldefense.com)

Authors: W. Joseph Campbell, Professor Emeritus of Communication, American University School of Communication

Read more https://theconversation.com/one-memorable-speech-can-turn-around-a-faltering-campaign-how-nixon-did-it-with-his-checkers-talk-233768

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