Exclusive to Nixonfoundation.org, Lee Huebner, former Nixon Speechwriter and current George Washington University Professor of Media and Public Affairs, has written an essay about then Senator Richard Nixon’s seminal Checker’s Speech given 60 years ago on September 23, 1952. The prime time television address forever changed presidential politics.
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.”
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 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 1952, 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.