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What Was Nixon's "Checkers Speech"?

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Fifty-nine years ago today, 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 all these years 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.

This article originally appeared in 2008.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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language
6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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