Frank Gannon: Taking matters into his own hands, 57th anniversary of the speech that changes RN's lifeRoundup: Talking About History
Today is the fifty-seventh anniversary of the speech that changed the course of RN’s life and of politics as practiced in America.
It was also the first of the remarkable comebacks from defeat or adversity that marked his long career.
Garry Wills described the spectacular risk RN took, and the stunning success he achieved:
Nixon first demonstrated the political uses and impact of television. In one half hour Nixon converted himself from a liability, breathing his last, to one of the few people who could add to Eisenhower’s preternatural appeal — who could gild the lilly. For the first time, people saw a living political drama on their TV sets — a man fighting for his whole career and future — and they judged him under that strain. It was an even greater achievement than it seemed. He had only a short time to prepare for it. The show, forced on him [by Eisenhower's advisers], was meant as a form of political euthanasia. He came into the studio still reeling from distractions and new demoralizing blows….[A]t the time he went onto the TV screen in 1952, he was hunted and alone.
It had all started several days earlier. On 14 September 1952, just as RN was launching his campaign as Ike’s VP with a whistlestop train trip aboard the Nixon Special, up the coast from Pomona to Seattle. Three thousand miles across the continent the New York Post ran a headline: Secret Nixon Fund! Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary.
Under Dorothy Schiff’s ownership and Jimmy Wechsler’s ownership, the Post in those days was a proudly-identified left-wing tabloid. The story was completely bogus, and the rap was totally bum. Far from being secret, the fund had been solicited by letters to hundreds of supporters throughout California, individual contributions had been limited to $500, and the account was administered by a trustee and was regularly audited.
But the reporters smelled blood in the water, and the story soon overwhelmed all campaign coverage.
Not the least of the many ironies of the Fund Crisis was that the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai Stevenson, did have an unreported secret slush fund of campaign contributions that he had used for purely personal expenses.
It was finally decided that RN should take his case directly to the American people with a speech to be broadcast both on the radio and the new medium of television. Depending on the popular reaction to the speech, he would either remain on the ticket or voluntarily withdraw.
The approach he took to this situation was as inspired as it was unprecedented. Instead of the self-serving boilerplate blather usually produced in such situations, he decided to take his national audience on a guided tour of his net worth. In addition to proving that he clearly met Ike’s ethical standard of being “clean as a hen’s tooth,” the speech showed that he was just a regular guy, like most of his viewers.
While Adlai Stevenson’s ‘52 campaign slogan was “Let’s talk sense to the American people,” his rhetoric was often elegant bordering on highfalutin. But RN’s plain speech put everything right out front right up front:
I come before you tonight as a candidate for the Vice Presidency and as a man whose honesty and — and integrity has been questioned.
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’ve had enough of that in the United States, particularly with the present Administration in Washington, D.C. To me the office of the Vice Presidency of the United States is a great office, and I feel that the people have got to have confidence in the integrity of the men who run for that office and who might obtain it.
I have a theory, too, that the best and only answer to a smear or to an honest misunderstanding of the facts is to tell the truth. And that’s why I’m here tonight. I want to tell you my side of the case. I’m sure that you have read the charge, and you’ve heard it, that I, Senator Nixon, took 18,000 dollars from a group of my supporters.
Nothing like this had ever been seen or heard before. The effect was immediate and electric.
From the moment RN’s image faded off the screen, the Checkers Speech —as it immediately became known— was controversial in direct proportion to its success; in other words, off the charts.
Nixon supporters reveled in the tsunami of national warmth and support for this honest and plainspoken young man who had, by risking all, turned the tables on his foes. And his foes, not surprisingly, carped that it had been mawkish and unseemly and embarrassing.
RN preferred to talk about the “Fund Crisis” — because the speech, important as it was, was only part of a greater and no less significant story of a badly wronged man fighting back and coming out on top. But although the Fund Speech was RN’s preferred term of art, that tale continues to wag the dog, and it has gone down in history as the Checkers Speech.
The drama of those September days has been described by many authors — including RN himself, who made it the second of his Six Crises. More than four decades later, Six Crises presents incomparably the most vivid and dramatic account, and it still makes exciting reading. In the first volume of his Nixon trilogy, Stephen Ambrose surveys a lot of the press coverage. And Conrad Black’s recent magisterial biography supplies both drama and analysis:
Abandoned by everyone except his wife, his mother, [political adviser Murray] Chotiner, [RNC Chairman Arthur] Summerfield, [RNC public relations director Robert] Humphreys, and a few others, put right to the wall and verging on nervous and physical exhaustion, Nixon had staged a political version of MacArthur’s Inchon landing. He had destroyed his enemies, given the vice presidency a political significance it had never had in 164 years of the history of the office, sacked his judge and the kangaroo court around him and replaced them with his friends in the National Committee, while impeccably restating the greatness of Eisenhower. Dwight D. Eisenhower was, by most measurements, a great man, but his greatness was not in evidence on this occasion, and that was not the description of him uppermost in Nixon’s thoughts at this time.
The role played by PN throughout the Fund Crisis was pivotal and inspirational. And it wasn’t easy for her, as Julie Nixon Eisenhower revealed in her biography of her mother; and as RN described in the interviews I conducted with him in 1983:
The homely and memorable example of the cocker spaniel has come to dominate —and characterize— thinking about the speech. In fact, aside from RN’s heartfelt peroration and the central core of reporting his net worth, the speech was an example of extremely sophisticated and hard hitting political rhetoric. As RN wrote in RN, even the pooch had a political pedigree:
On the plane [a night flight from Portland to LA where the speech would be delivered], I took some postcards from the pocket of the seat in front of me and began to put down some thoughts about what I might say.
I remembered the Truman scandal concerning a $9,000 ink coat given to a White House secretary, and I made a note that Pat had no mink — just a cloth coat. I thought of DNC CHairman Mitchell’s snide comment that people who cannot afford to hold an office should not run for it, and I made a note to check out a quotation from Lincoln to the effect that God must have loved the common people because he made so many of them. I also thought about the stunning success FDR had in his speech during the 1944 campaign, when he had ridiculed his critics by saying they were even attacking his little dog Fala, and I knew it would infuriate critics if I could turn this particular table on them.
But enough exposition — here is the speech itself. After all this time, and despite the outdated and stilted production values of the hastily mounted production (the opening and closing titles were RN’s Senate calling card) its human honesty and emotional intensity can still pack a punch. Imagine what it must have been like when there had never been anything like it.
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