Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The “Checkers Speech”: When Nixon Bet and Dared Eisenhower to Call

Fifty-three years ago -- September 23, 1952 -- California senator and vice-presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon went on national television for a full half-hour to defend himself against accusations that he had inappropriately used campaign funds for his personal use. The presentation was positively received by the American public, and as a result thoughts about replacing Nixon with another VP candidate on the Republican ticket were swept aside.

Early on in the half-hour Nixon tells how an independent audit had been ordered to examine the fund and that it had determined no improprieties to have existed regarding it. He then provides numerous details about his personal finances, sharing practically every bit of trivia regarding his modest upbringing and the money he and his wife Pat had made and saved over the years, right down to exact amounts owed in mortgages and loans, details regarding his life insurance policy, and the fact that he owned a 1950 Oldsmobile.

It’s quite a tale, this financial autobiography provided by a politician on a national stage. Nixon omits one interesting item, though -- the money he won at poker while a Naval officer serving in the Pacific during the latter stages of WWII. He does mention how at the end of the war he and Pat had about $10,000 saved with which he was able to launch his first Congressional campaign, but in truth some (perhaps even most) of that total came from his having cleaned up in games of stud and draw on Green Island.

After defending himself, Nixon goes on the offensive, speaking about the Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson’s own campaign fund (bigger, and less well monitored), then moves on to praise the candidate at the top of the Republican’s ticket, Dwight D. Eisenhower. He concludes the speech with an invitation to viewers to send their judgments to the Republican National Committee, and as noted the response was quite favorable, showing that Nixon’s defense had succeeded.

The most famous passage of the speech comes at the very end of that catalogue of items regarding personal finances, beginning with Nixon saying “One other thing I should probably tell you, because if I don’t they will probably be saying this about me, too.” He describes the family having been given the gift of a dog, a cocker spaniel, while on the campaign trail. He explains how Tricia, their oldest daugher (then aged six), named the dog Checkers.

“You know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog,” says Nixon. “And I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.”

It’s certainly an attention-grabbing moment in the speech. It’s jaw-droppingly maudlin, too, and one of several points during the half-hour that seem almost comic in retrospect. It’s part of a somewhat complex rhetorical strategy employed during the presentation, a stirring of the emotions to go along with the more rational-seeming presentation of facts and other attempts to establish credibility so as to persuade the audience that Nixon was not at fault, was honest, and could be trusted going forward.

Incidentally, the reference to a dog in a defensive political speech had a precedent, something Nixon was well aware of at the time. Exactly eight years before, on September 23, 1944, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had responded to accusations that during a tour of the Pacific -- right after Nixon had left, in fact -- he had left his dog (named Fala) on one of the islands and had ordered a destroyer to go back to get it (at great expense).

The story was false, and FDR jokingly talks about how he personally didn’t mind the Republicans attacking him, but that his dog was much more sensitive. “His Scotch soul was furious... he has not been the same dog since,” Roosevelt cracked, adding that he felt it incumbent on him “to object to libelous statements about my dog.”

Given that he was speaking on the anniversary of the “Fala speech” and was making a pretty deliberate allusion, I can’t help but think Nixon had his tongue in cheek somewhat with his decision to highlight Checkers in a similarly humorous bit of self-justification. But the move meant more in Nixon’s speech, and came to be remembered much more vividly thereafter when people throughout his career would point back to the “Checkers speech.”

One aspect of the speech I find fascinating is how it can be viewed as a strategic move by Nixon in a conflict not against the Democrats or the press who were raising concerns and attacking him for the fund, but rather a part of a kind of “heads-up match” between himself and Eisenhower -- also a fine poker player, as it happens, although there are no stories of Nixon and Ike ever actually playing against each other.

Eisenhower -- a five-star general and war hero, but not really a politician -- was being led by his advisors, who had suggested he choose Nixon as his VP, then were suggesting he find a way to remove him from the ticket once the “fund crisis” broke. In fact, Ike’s advisors likely helped make the crisis bigger than it should have been insofar as they didn’t encourage the presidential candidate to step in and defend Nixon early on when talk of the fund first arose.

How, then, to move forward? Ike didn’t want to ask Nixon to step off, preferring instead that Nixon make the decision himself. But Nixon didn’t want to be the one to make the decision, either -- he wanted Ike to decide.

They had reached impasse, and by going on TV and asking the American public to weigh in, Nixon cleverly forced Eisenhower’s hand (so to speak). It was as though Nixon made a big bet on himself and was daring Ike to call it.

I like how Garry Wills describes the situation in his 1970 book Nixon Agonistes. Says Wills, Nixon “knew this was not what it appeared -- Nixon against the press, or the Democrats, or the people. It was Nixon against Ike -- a contest that... no one can be expected to win” because of Eisenhower’s enormous popularity. Nixon, explains Wills, “was reaching out across [the viewers’] heads to touch swords in a secret duel with Ike.”

When I watch and consider the “Checkers speech,” then, I think not of the board game after which the cocker spaniel was named, but the card game both Nixon and Eisenhower played successfully. And how early in his career Nixon found a way to win this particular, crucial pot.

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