This is the story of a very successful politician, his family dog, and how that dog took part in saving his political skin. It’s tempting, if wholly misleading, to write something catchy like “Nixon’s political career was famously saved by the family dog,” as though Nixon’s career were floundering in a lake when the cocker spaniel steadfastly dog-paddled out, grabbed Nixon’s career in its teeth, and pulled it gasping but safe to the shore. More accurately, this is a story that illustrates Richard Milhous Nixon’s natural genius as a politician, and his ability and willingness to take huge political risks with enormous political payoff.
It’s very hard from our vantage point to remember there was ever a time when Nixon’s name did not immediately evoke political scandal at the highest levels, or a time when the last syllable of a now-notorious Washington hotel was not added as shorthand for political corruption to whatever is serving as the scandal or pseudo-scandal of the day: Travelgate, Plamegate, Rathergate, Whitewatergate, etc. etc. It’s difficult even for someone like me, the child of hardcore conservative parents who shared the unshakeable conviction that Nixon was a Republican saint laid low by a merciless, vindictive liberal press. At the mere mention of the “White House tapes” my parents would practically stick their fingers in their ears and repeat “nah nah nah” loudly before inevitably accusing a person of having been brainwashed by the liberal (meaning, basically, communist) press. (And no joke. My parents, if I or my brothers ever chose to argue with them politically, were all too ready to accuse us, their own flesh and blood, of being remarkably easy dupes for the liberal, red-leaning, fellow traveling press.)
Nevertheless, as hard as it is now to believe, before Watergate and the White House Plumbers entered the national lexicon, Nixon was a political force to be reckoned with.
He had made enemies, of course, as successful politicians do. He particularly ruffled feathers when he chose to nearly out-McCarthy McCarthy at hunting communists in the late forties and early fifties. As a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Nixon had chaired HUAC’s efforts to prosecute a former State department official named Alger Hiss, who had been accused of being a Soviet agent. The case ended up being so notoriously inconclusive that it was the perfect litmus test for whatever conclusion you personally chose to draw from it. Either Alger Hiss had been framed, and the anti-communists were witch hunters who used the threat of communism for shameless political advancement; or Hiss was guilty, and Nixon, McCarthy and their pinko-fingering ilk were national heroes trying to ferret out the insidious rot that threatened to destroy our nation from within. (Amazingly, over sixty years later, after years of international research, ceaseless efforts by Alger Hiss to clear his own name, and a parade of former Soviet operatives unloading facts for and against Hiss’s guilt from old KGB documents, there is still no definitive evidence one way or the other to determine his culpability or innocence.)
So when a potential scandal involving Nixon was uncovered, some members of the press were ready to pounce. In September 1952, two months after Nixon had been named as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate on the Republican Presidential ticket, it was revealed that Nixon had been making use of a political fund to defray his cost of campaigning. While it was the sort of campaign chest that today wouldn’t lift an eyebrow or merit a whisper of concern, in 1952 it was treated like a damning sign of undue influence being wielded by moneyed interests. In the space of little over a week, after first being asked about it in passing following an appearance on Meet the Press, Nixon, who was on the road campaigning on a whistle stop tour, suddenly found himself confronted with growing calls for his withdrawal from the Republican ticket.
The clamor grew. Eventually the head of the Republican National Committee suggested to Murray Chotiner, Nixon’s campaign manager, that Nixon give a national speech on TV to make his case to the American people. Aware that his place on the Republican ticket was in increasingly serious jeopardy, Nixon agreed to deliver a half hour speech on Tuesday, September 23rd, live from the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, to be aired nationally on NBC. It was filmed with Nixon sitting behind and walking around a small desk next to a full bookshelf, a perfect diorama of slightly shabby domestic productivity, while his wife Pat sat to the right.
The first part of the speech Nixon used to explain what the political fund was, why he used a political fund in order to avoid having to use “taxpayer’s dollars” to support his political campaigning, and how as a man of humble means—not born to wealth like, say, Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president—he needed to be able to handle the considerable costs of running for office.
He then took the remarkable and unprecedented step of providing a detailed breakdown of his and his wife’s entire financial holdings, their savings, investments, loans, and mortgages on their two homes (in one of which, Nixon got to point out, his elderly parents were living.) He delivered the speech first from behind, then walking in front of the desk, while his wife Pat sat looking on in what felt like admiring silence, the model of a deferential American wife. (Later, she said that she was so rapt because she had no idea what he was going to say and wanted to find out. She was also mortified to hear her husband baring their financial souls to the world.)
After this thorough financial disclosure, he delivered the first of two emotional punchlines, saying that while his wife Pat didn’t have a mink coat, she had a “respectable Republican cloth coat,” a line he’d been using on the campaign trail in an attempt to dislodge the perception that he was being paid off by wealthy donors. But, as evidenced by the fact that it is not called the “Cloth Coat speech,” it was what immediately followed, a reference to the family’s recently acquired cocker spaniel, that was the speech’s clincher.
The exact quote was: “One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me too, we did get something—a gift—after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
In fact, Checkers’ part in the “Checkers speech” took up slightly less than a minute of the nearly half hour delivery. But it had everything, namely: 1) a dog, 2) adorable pet-name-giving children, 3) mean, oppressive political enemies that would dare to do the unthinkable and take said dog away from said children, and 4) their stalwart father vowing to fearlessly defend them against such heartless (Liberal, probably Communist) enemies. It was, in its way, the very picture of Nixon’s chosen role as an anti-communist warrior writ small and domestic. Thus was the speech given the name by which it would become known, and by which any kind of soul-bearing, borderline mawkish political speech—the rhetorical version of baby-kissing—would be thereafter classified: the Checkers speech.
He then threw down the gauntlet, insisting that all of the other candidates perform a full financial disclosure as he had done, most pointedly Adlai Stevenson, who he had neatly painted throughout the speech as both a communist apologist and a pampered child of privilege, in contrast to his own story of humble beginnings. He used the opportunity to unapologetically insist on the necessity of his role in the Hiss trial and explained why he felt it was necessary for Eisenhower to take over in the White House, “to drive the crooks and the Communists out of Washington.” In conclusion, he made a direct appeal to his fellow Americans to write into the Republic National Committee and let them know whether they thought he should stay or go.
There was a precedent for the Checkers part of the speech. Six years to the day before Nixon’s speech, FDR had responded to Republican accusations that he had used a military ship, at the cost of millions of dollars, to recover his treasured Scottish terrier Fala from the Aleutian islands. In FDR’s own dog speech, the Fala speech, famous in its day, he used humor to mock the Republican charges, talking about how Fala, as a good Scot, was appalled to hear these accusations against him, and “hadn’t been the same dog since.”
The two different dog speeches are remarkable in the degree to which they mirror—nearly exactly—the difference to this day between Democratic and Republican rhetorical mannerisms. FDR’s speech is pure Clinton, and now Obama: self-mocking, humorous, seeking to make the opposition seem silly and trite. Nixon’s speech, on the other hand, would do any Tea Party candidate proud. He is saving America from the godless hordes (whether communist, terrorist, or otherwise), while he and his wife are selfless, humble, devoted servants of the American people looking not to line their pockets but to do their part to save and advance America’s greatness. There is also an earnest stiffness to his delivery that reminds me ever so slightly of a Michelle Bachmann, say, or a Rand Paul.
The speech was a grand slam, delivered to a viewing audience of 60 million Americans, the largest national audience ever to tune in to a TV broadcast up to that point. At first, Nixon thought the speech was a failure, saying about an Irish setter that ran next to their car as they drove away from the theater, “Well, we made a hit in the dog world anyway.” But he was soon to find out differently. Public support was overwhelmingly in his favor. In the end, Nixon’s kids did keep the dog, Nixon kept the nomination, and a little over a month later Ike won the election in a landslide.
The long-term effects of the speech were murkier. There were suggestions that he lost the 1960 election to Kennedy because of the speech. But as Nixon pointed out, he wouldn’t have been around in 1960 if it hadn’t been for the Checkers speech (which he insisted on calling “the Fund speech”, resentful of the idea that the family dog was the sole reason for the speech’s success). He celebrated the speech’s anniversary each year and insisted that all of his speechwriters study it thoroughly.
Checkers himself died in 1964, two years after Nixon “quit” politics saying, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” and four years before he would finally gain the office he had coveted for so long, an office for which he would later pay such a hefty price, invoking a scandal from which no amount of full disclosure and dog-invoking rhetoric could save him.