By Nina Newman
On September 23, 1952, Richard Milhous Nixon delivered an emotional half-hour speech to the American people. On this historic day, he became the first American politician to be televised live before a national audience. The speech was Nixon’s last chance to convince the Republican voters that he was worthy to be on the ticket with General Eisenhower. The speech was aired less than two months before the presidential election and was seen or heard by over 60 million people. Sitting at his large desk, facing the camera, he began the speech the same as politicians would, for years to come, “My fellow Americans.”
Nixon, who had been openly accused of improper use of funds that were designated for his campaign, harshly criticized his opponents, and stated that he would not, as other politicians had in the past, ignore nor deny the allegations against him. Nixon’s speech began in an angry tone as he addressed the issue of his political expense fund.
Nixon dared his opponents to be transparent about their financial situation, and spoke at length about those who continued to smear his reputation. This negative media attention prior to the speech had left scars on Nixon; many urged him to stop the persecution of communists, and his relationship with the press was at its worst. Realizing that his political career was on the line, Nixon knew that if he didn’t clean up the smear himself, his running mate General Dwight Eisenhower, would select an alternative candidate.
Nixon was determined to run for vice-president and although he was not fully prepared, he and his staff quickly organized the live production for his speech in a Los Angeles theater. With hands folded, Nixon spoke directly into the camera, looked at his notes when necessary, and on numerous occasions, used filler language, like “let me say, well and, folks.”
Throughout the speech Nixon remained composed, backing his position with facts. He claimed not to have given special favors to those who contributed to his expense fund, nor were the funds exploited for his personal use.
“Well then,” he says, “Some of you will say, and rightly, well, what did you use the fund for, Senator? Why did you have to have it?” He refrained from answering these questions, and instead spoke proudly of his wife, Pat, who had worked many weekends, on a voluntary basis, helping him with his duties as California senator without ever taking a cent from the American taxpayers.
His personal life was in question, and Nixon needed to prove to the public that his finances were in order, so he initiated an audit of his finances to convince Americans that he had not been skimming money from the political expense fund. The audit strengthened his claim; that he, Pat and his two girls lived a modest lifestyle.
Nixon spoke of his parents and the family store in a nostalgic way. He emphasized that there were five brothers who helped the family run the shop and provided the Nixons’ a modest income. He had financed most of his education, including law school, and finally served in the Navy before going into political life. Again he spoke of his wife, Pat, and their life, struggling together as a young couple.
He then became emotional, as he fondly recalled a gift, he refused to return, of a precious black and white cocker spaniel; a farmer from Texas had heard Pat say that his girls, Trisha and Julie wanted a dog. So this kind man from Texas sent them a puppy from his dog’s litter, and the girls named the dog, Checkers.
Clinton’s Failed Attempt
Forty years later, Bill Clinton’s speech was reminiscent of Nixon’s. Both were angry at those that had smeared their good names. Clinton was being accused of infidelity, whereas Nixon’s future was being threatened because of misuse of an expense fund.
Clinton’s speech was ineffective; the public did not believe him. His eye contact was indirect, and too much knowledge of past affairs left the American people with doubt. Nixon’s speech, on the other hand, was a great success. He demonstrated the power of the new medium, television, and thanks to it the continuation of his candidacy for vice-president. Nixon convinced the American people that he had used the fund, instead of using taxpayer’s money, to pay for political expenses. He successfully used documents from the audit, posed rhetorical questions and details to prove his modest lifestyle. In addition, he successfully appealed to the middle class, by telling the American people that his wife Pat did not have a mink, but looked great in her Republican cloth coat!
Over 60 million Americans sat in their living rooms watching or listening to the speech. It was then the largest television audience in history and a turning point in Nixon’s career. He was, however, convinced that he was a failure, until he saw tears running down the cameraman’s face, and then overheard his wife one the phone saying her husband had surely vindicated himself. His hotel suite was flooded with calls and telegrams with praise for the speech, urging him to remain on the ticket. But no word came from Eisenhower.
Meanwhile in another city, General Eisenhower’s wife Mamie was in tears after watching the Checkers speech. Supporters in the convention hall where Eisenhower was just about to announce his vice-presidential candidate were asked, “Are you in favor of Nixon?” The crowd of 15,000 Republicans roared, “We want Nixon!” So Eisenhower acted quickly and revised his speech making Nixon his vice-presidential running mate.
This emotional speech salvaged Nixon’s reputation. He played with the public’s emotions; conveying the message that he was a man with a simple, modest lifestyle, with love and admiration for his wife and young children, and his support and belief in Eisenhower.
His final words endeared even those who were not Nixon supporters, “Eisenhower is a great man. Folks, he is a great man, and a vote for Eisenhower is a vote for what is good for America. Regardless of what happens, I am going to continue this fight. I am going to campaign up and down America until we drive the crooks and the Communists and those that defend them out of Washington.”
Nixon celebrated the anniversary of this speech each year, but preferred to call it the fund speech, because he disliked knowing that a cute little black and white cocker spaniel, named Checkers, was the only thing that saved his political career.
pbs.org, “Nixon’s Checkers Speech,” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/eisenhower-checkers/
Richard Nixon Foundation, Nixon Foundation, ”How ‘Checkers’ Changed the Game of Television,” Sep 23.2016, https://www.nixonfoundation.org/2016/09/how-checkers-changed-the-game-of-television/