What was the "Checkers Speech" and why is it so important?

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Fifty-six years ago yesterday, Republican VP candidate Richard Nixon went on TV to give what's known as the "Checkers Speech." Why does a speech named after a dog live on in our cultural subconscious more than half a century later? Let's find out.

Checkers, the speech

After practicing law and serving in the Navy during World War II, Nixon's political star rose quickly. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and made a name for himself on the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1950, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he continued to rage against Communism.

At the 1952 Republican National Convention, presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower chose Nixon as his running mate. Two months later, the New York Post ran the headline "Secret Rich Men's Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary" above an article claiming that campaign donors were buying influence with Nixon by keeping a secret fund stocked with cash for his personal expenses (some $140,000 in today's dollars). Outrage followed, and many Republicans urged Eisenhower to take Nixon off the ticket.

On September 23, Nixon appeared on national television from the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood to defend himself. He said that the fund did exist, but the money wasn't secret, was strictly for covering campaign expenses, and that no contributor to the campaign fund ever received any special treatment. He produced the results of an independent audit of his finances and proceeded to reveal his financial history, touching on everything from money he made from speaking engagements, to the rent he paid for an apartment in Virginia the four years he was there ($80 a month!), to the $10 check he received from a supporter too young to vote that he promised never to cash.

He then challenged the Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson to also provide a history of his finances to the public and urged the public to contact the Republican National Committee and give their opinion on whether he should remain on the ticket or not.

The speech was a triumph. Nixon gained sympathy from both the public and from the powerful Republicans who had been calling for his head. Eisenhower summoned Nixon to West Virginia and greeted his running mate at the airport with, "Dick, you're my boy." Eisenhower and Nixon defeated the Democrats in November by seven million votes.

Checkers, the dog

There was one campaign donation that Nixon did admit to receiving and keeping for himself. Lou Carrol, a traveling salesman from Texas, had heard Nixon's wife mention during a radio interview how much the Nixon children wanted a dog. So he sent them a black and white spotted American Cocker Spaniel that Nixon's daughter Tricia named Checkers. Nixon admitted that the dog could become an issue, but said he didn't care. His kids loved the dog and no matter what his critics said, they were keeping it.

Checkers died in 1964 and is buried in Wantagh, New York, on Long Island's Bide-A-Wee Pet Cemetery.

The Checkers Legacy

checkers.jpgIt seems strange that we still remember Tricky Dick disclosing his financial situation in a speech named after a dog that's really only mentioned in passing. But the speech changed the way that politicians and the public interact. Nixon was perhaps one of the first to recognize the power that TV had in shaping a politician's image and the tube helped him in 1952 just as much as it hurt him during his debate with Kennedy in 1960.

The very idea of a politician making his case directly in front of the public—in their own living rooms, no less—was a novel concept at the time. And the combination of the studio set (a faux middle-class den) and Nixon's financial disclosures, which were both entrancing and agonizing to watch, closed the gap between him and the public even more.

The bit about Checkers, which take up less than a minute of airtime, is the clincher. By invoking the name of man's best friend, as cheesy as the speech may sound, Nixon helped give birth to a political landscape where personality is as important as policy, and where a person's vote hinges on which candidate they'd rather have a beer—or sit in a dog park—with.

Here's the speech:

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September 23, 2008 - 9:03pm
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