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September 23, 1952: Checkers Speech

The  “Checkers Speech” given by Richard Nixon which allowed him to stay on the ticket as Vice-President on September 23, 1952.   (Hard to believe that it is almost two-thirds of a century since the speech was delivered.) The speech got its name from Nixon’s use of the pet dog given to his daughters, Checkers, to gain sympathy by stating that the girls had gotten fond of the dog and he would not return it.  The speech was classic Nixon:  go on the offensive, self-pitying, maudlin and oh so effective.  Nixon was never a great orator, but until Watergate he never lost the touch of appealing to the average American.  His high brow, usually left wing, critics savaged him, but Nixon never forgot that the purpose of a political speech is  persuasion.

 

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A classic anti-Nixon poster asked if you would buy a used car from him.  For most of his career, Nixon could have sold a car with a shot transmission and four bald tires to to a substantial segment of the American population and they would have thanked him for it.  Whence this power?  I think Nixon early tapped into the resentment that a growing number of average Americans had toward the chattering classes that were rapidly losing touch with them, and looked down on them.  That Nixon privately shared many of the views of the chattering classes that despised him as the ultimate enemy is one of the greater ironies of American political life during Nixon’s career.

 

The “Checkers Speech” will always be remembered for this peroration:

One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me too, we did get something—a gift—after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip 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 that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.

 

 

Nixon was only 39 at the time and his rise in politics had been amazing.  Elected Congressman in 1946, the first elective office he held, he won a Senate seat from California in 1950 and in 1952 was running for Vice-President.  However, his career came close to being aborted with this scandal, at least in regard to ever running on a national ticket.  The reaction to the speech was electric by the public, and Eisenhower kept him on the ticket, but it had been a very close call for Nixon.

If Nixon had been tossed off the ticket he still would have been a senator, but the chances of him ever succeeding in gaining the Republican nomination for President would have been nil.  His speech had a vast impact on American history, the ramifications of which are still being played out today.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

5 Comments

  1. Eisenhower had a mild preference for Harold Stassen, but he really didn’t care much one way or another, and left the choice up to the Convention. Eisenhower pretty much ignored Nixon during the next eight years although Nixon liked to pretend a much closer relationship to Eisenhower than he really enjoyed. Truth to tell, Ike was a workaholic and pretty cold to most people, outside of his small circle of close friends, belying his image of a smiling common man. He regarded Nixon as just another member of his staff, and a relatively unimportant one at that. Few Presidents had a private reality more at variance with their public image than Eisenhower.

  2. That Nixon privately shared many of the views of the chattering classes that despised him as the ultimate enemy is one of the greater ironies of American political life during Nixon’s career.

    To the extent that Nixon and Agnew took an interest in policy, they tended to side with the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party (Agnew was an associate of Theodore McKeldin and attended the 1964 Republican convention as a Rockefeller delegate). At the same time, they were partisans of their own kind and the convictions and lifeways of their own kind. Agnew in particular was a precise and astringent critic of the counter-culture and the deference the chattering classes had for it. The Nixon sisters and Agnew’s older daughters were a counterpoint to Haight-Ashbury. At a time when you had those of the older generation in the liberal establishment (Tom Wicker and George McGovern and Arthur Schlesinger and, to a degree, Garry Wills) saying we must listen to youth, you had Agnew saying explicitly that youth had to listen and learn from people who’d mastered the disciplines of life and who had real accomplishments. Nixon was less confrontational, but he also lacked the deference to the youth culture of the liberal establishment. (The two men had much in common; interestingly that they so disliked each other).

  3. Few Presidents had a private reality more at variance with their public image than Eisenhower.

    I think you mean a personality more at variance with their public image. Eisenhower’s domestic life was conventional if truncated.

    Adela Rogers St. John once said John Kennedy “screwed anything that didn’t have four legs, and I’m not even sure he wouldn’t do that”. The man was on a boat with friends and floozies while his wife was giving birth in 1956, not anywhere around for her when she learned the child had been stillborn. That wasn’t part of his public image. Lyndon Johnson’s adulteries were unpublicized (while people like Judith Viorst and WoodStein were offering egregious public assessments of the Nixons’ solid marriage) and CBS News (among others) refuse to report to their viewers that he’d appeared drunk in public at campaign stops. (My mother wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn that Lyndon Johnson met with aides while seated on a crapper, so there were perhaps limits to the ability of his PR operatives to conceal certain essentials).

    In the last 40 years, it’s gotten a great deal more difficult for people in that fishbowl to manufacture false impressions

  4. Eisenhower pretty much ignored Nixon during the next eight years although Nixon liked to pretend a much closer relationship to Eisenhower than he really enjoyed.

    Eisenhower’s complaint was that Nixon was good at delineating options and boiling down the views of others, but offered nothing original when asked for his opinion. The Vice Presidency was a wretched apprenticeship for the Presidency. Nixon wasn’t a natural the way Reagan was as an administrator and none of his other positions gave him any practice with executive responsibility. The results weren’t pretty. What’s curious is that prior to 1960, the Vice Presidency offered its occupant no advantage in competing for the Presidency. Over 150+ years, only 1 of two dozen or so VP’s who had not succeeded to the office ever won a major party nomination (three others had won 3d party nominations, FWIW). It was only in the 20th c that succeeding to the President’s chair from the VPs job gave one an advantage at a party convention. Prior to that, VPs who’d succeeded to the Presidency shuffled off into retirement when their term ended.

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