You Can’t Lose with Little Kids, Dogs or Dick Nixon
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Whether you loved him or hated him, former president Richard Nixon was a gargantuan character in political history. Nixon, a young California senator, shot to fame in 1952 when General Dwight D. Eisenhower tapped him as his vice presidential running mate on the Republican ticket. As soon as the contest began, the press exposed a “secret fund” backers had raised for Nixon. His friends said it was to cover legitimate campaign expenses and his enemies insisted it was to live extravagantly. Eisenhower told Nixon he had to go on television, a brand new medium in the world in 1952, to refute the charges.
Thus was born the famous Checkers speech, a thirty-minute TV appearance that kept Nixon on the ticket, charmed the country and made television history.
In his address, Nixon heatedly denied charges that he spent the money on personal items, stated proudly that his wife Pat owned only a cloth coat and not a mink stole and then, creating electronic legend, said that a backer had given his little girls a cute little dog named Checkers and no matter what happened, they were not going to give the dog back.
Then a strange thing happened. At the end of the speech, Nixon asked viewers to call the Republican National Committee to voice their support for him, but TV cut him off before he could give the phone number or address. Instead, viewers, overwhelmingly in favor of him, called everybody they could think of -- newspapers, television stations, radios, political offices, town halls. It was a mammoth outpouring of support following one of the most widely watched television events in history (over 60 million viewers). Several days later, Ike held his hand high in the air and told Nixon, “You’re my boy!”
This intriguing slice of political history, a high note in Nixon’s long and controversial career, is the center of Doug McGrath’s appealing new play, Checkers, at New York’s Vineyard Theater. The play has its slow moments and not a whole lot of drama, but is a fascinating look at Nixon, Ike and the phenomenal power of television, even in its infancy.
The play focuses on Nixon’s view of the political world. How much do you give up of your personal life to win an election in your public life? What is your family worth compared to office? Do you lie on national television if the result is the vice presidency?
Anthony LaPaglia plays a pretty good Nixon. He has that sour look, head down, arms folded in front of him. Sometimes he hits the former president’s voice inflections beautifully and most of the time they are reasonably close. He comes off as a gutsy guy from a working-class background, who is pretty paranoid, owner of a big inferiority complex and somebody who feels that the whole world is out to get him. In the play, Nixon is a man who did nothing wrong with his “secret fund” and was being pilloried for no substantial reason. He fights hard to stay on the ticket, battling a cadre of enemies within the Republican Party, and wins. At the end of the play, in his New York apartment in 1966, he says he is going to run for president in 1968. The rest, of course, is history, chaotic history.
The hero of the impressive drama is not Dick Nixon, but his wife, Pat. She is played masterfully by Kathryn Erbe, best known from Law and Order: Criminal Intent. She continually questions her husband on what he wants to do and asks if the awful political life they live really worth it. He has no doubt that it is but she constantly wonders. She is an anxious and loving Pat Nixon, not the “plastic Pat,” as the press nicknamed her.
I spent a day with Pat Nixon in the fall of 1972, when her husband was running for re-election against George McGovern. She was touring a seeing-eye dog training center in Morristown, N.J. I can’t remember ever spending so much time with such a pleasant woman. It was a completely different Pat Nixon than you saw on television. She was not only nice to everybody, but politically just as savvy as her husband. I asked her if she put much trust in the different polls, that had her husband well ahead of McGovern. She stopped walking, turned to me, looked me right in the eyes and said, knowingly, “none of these polls count for much. The only poll that counts is the one they do on election day.”
That is the Pat Nixon of the play. From the opening minutes to the end of the drama, she tells her husband that she understands politics but just hates it. He comes off as a loving spouse who is driven by his ambition more than his love for her, and a man who keeps asking her to put up with everything and stand by him so he can realize his dream. She does.
What is so interesting about the Checkers speech is that television is the centerpiece of political campaigns today. President Obama nearly lost the recent election because of his pathetic performance in the first televised debate with former governor Mitt Romney. He made a nice comeback in debates two and three, but his failure in the first, in front of nearly 70 million people, showed the dramatic impact of television. Nixon found that out first, way back in 1952.
Playwright McGrath shows Nixon in a reasonably good light, perhaps because this is very early Nixon (he was only 39 when he ran for vice president) and shows Nixon aide Murray Chotiner as a hardworking politician (Chotiner is played marvelously by Lewis Stadlen, who is full of anger). McGrath is not so kind to most of the other characters in the play. He offers a really scathing portrait of General Eisenhower, who won the election in a landslide over Adlai Stevenson. Ike, the national hero, is seen as a cold, heartless campaigner who does not care at all about Nixon and wants to get rid of him, even if Nixon is innocent of all charges. Ike’s aides, such as Sherman Adams and Herbert Brownell, are seen as a pack of vicious wolves. John Ottavino plays Ike, Kevin O’Rourke plays Adams and Robert Stanton is Brownell.
McGrath did a fine job of researching the Checkers story and setting it within the story of the 1952 campaign. Political junkies will love it because it focuses on Nixon’s views in the early 1950s (he shot to fame as an anti-communist breast beater) and in the late 1960s (law and order tough guy champion of the silent majority middle class). There are some superb political scenes in the play, too, scalding dialogue about how all that counts in winning.
There have been dozens of books, movies, plays and operas about Nixon. Historians and authors constantly try to figure him out. Maybe someday someone will.
PRODUCTION: Sets: Neil Patel; Costumes: Sarah Holden; Lighting: David Weiner; Projection Design: Darrel Maloney. The play is directed by Terry Kinney.
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