Home > 1932-1964 Campaigns, 1952 Campaign > 1952–Nixon “Checkers” Speech–Sarah Martin

1952–Nixon “Checkers” Speech–Sarah Martin

For my first two posts I focused on one of the technological advances that made the 1952 important- television advertisements. Although a turning point for modern campaigning, there was more to this election than cartoon characters and crooning ladies. For my final blog post I went with the well-known “Checkers” speech given on Septmber 23, 1952. I wanted to analyze the reasoning behind Vice-Presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s willingness to appear on air and what made this speech so successful. From Dwight Eisenhower’s willingness to have thrown him under the bus if this had not worked, to his complete and total honesty, to his ability to connect with the common man through this speech, Nixon turned questionable circumstances into a vote of confidence in his legitimacy.

Although it seems Nixon may have gone above and beyond any expectation of how he should have dealt with this, he probably felt the pressure from Eisenhower for this to eliminate any doubt of his innocence. The basic premise was this: there were possible undocumented gifts in the accounting of a campaign fund for Nixon. From this speech, Nixon was hoping that viewers would pressure the Republican National Committee (RNC) into keeping him on the ticket. Eisenhower, obviously, kept Nixon on the ticket and, allegedly the next time they saw each other, Eisenhower is quoted as telling Nixon, “Dick, you’re my boy.”

But how was Nixon able to turn allegations into support in a short, 30-minute speech? He was honest. He summed it up well in his first few lines, “Now, the usual political thing to do when charges are made against you is to either ignore them or to deny them without giving details. I believe we have had enough of that in the United States, particularly with the present administration in Washington D.C.” From there, he outlined literally the entirety of his financial status. The audience of about 60 million heard any and every detail of his finances from his two mortgages, to his wife’s, Pat, salary. The most notable detail, and the namesake of the speech, is his acknowledgement of the gift of “Checkers,” a dog given to his daughter, “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.” By going through every line item, big or small, living or inanimate, wet-nosed or made of cloth, Nixon was able to dismiss any doubt about the legality of his campaign fund.

This speech was not only successful because of its acquittal of Nixon, but also because Nixon was able to transition from defendant back to politician through connecting with the common man and attacking Adlai Stevenson’s abilities to do just that. The Eisenhower campaign was notorious for its ability to relate to the everyman. This speech is no different. Throughout his own defense, Nixon talks about his modest means, and then, during his attack on Stevenson, compares Nixon’s knowledge of the middle class with Stevenson’s image as being too connected with the Washington elite, “Take the problem of corruption. You’ve read about the mess in Washington. Mr. Stevenson can’t clean it up because he was picked by the man, Truman, under whose Administration the mess was made.”

Nixon went from the possibility of being dropped from the ticket, to addressing an excited crowd of 3,000 the following day. He carefully shifted any speculation about his finances, to speculation of not only Stevenson’s own finances, but his ability to lead the country, and view certain issues with enough importance. He did this while also making his audience feel as though, if Eisenhower were elected, the average citizen would finally have a voice in Washington, through Nixon himself. Although he became a proven crook years later, Nixon was able to keep his innocence and his vice-presidential candidacy alive through this speech. 

Postscript: Checkers lived a long and healthy life, dying at age 12 in 1964. May you rest in peace, Checkers. 





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