Jeffrey Frank: The Secret Story of Richard Nixon’s First Scandaltags: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Checkers speech, Salon, Jeffrey Frank, book excerpts
Excerpted from “Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage” by Jeffrey Frank. Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey Frank. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech — delivered just five days after the New York Post reported wealthy backers had set up a fund for his day-to-day expenses — was seen by some 58 million people, or about a third of the population of the United States. It lasted thirty minutes and was to be forever identified by its reference to a cocker spaniel named Checkers. It was like nothing ever seen in American politics, set apart by its intimacy, its pathos, the apparent revelation of a private life from a public man, and its use of television. Its structure was a trial lawyer’s closing (or, perhaps, opening) argument, which ranged from the explanatory to the exculpatory to the defiant; buried within it was not only Nixon’s defense of himself, but occasional jabs at his opponents and probably at General Dwight Eisenhower, his running mate. It is still a remarkable document....
Nixon at first had no real sense of what he’d just done, because no one had ever done it before, but it did not take long for him to realize that perhaps he needn’t despair; as he left the El Capitan, he was cheered by people who’d been waiting outside. And even without a proper address for the Republican National Committee, telegrams were already coming in at the rate of about four thousand an hour. Loie Gaunt, who worked on Nixon’s Senate staff, was helping out at the Washington Hotel and, after the speech, she stayed put, answering calls from people who told her that they’d been moved.
A positive consensus quickly appeared, much of it close to the somewhat conditional view of the Herald Tribune, whose editorial insisted that the final decision rested with General Eisenhower and, while not affirming full support of Nixon, now said that he “will emerge from this ordeal … not only as a better known but as a bigger man than before.” But there were dissenters — “this mawkish ooze ill became the role of a man who might become President,” one paper said — and even Nixon’s allies found something unsettling about the performance. One might have said of him, as Trollope wrote of the lawyer Mr. Samuel Dockwrath, “He talked well and to the point, and with a tone of voice that could command where command was possible, persuade where persuasion was required, mystify when mystification was needed, and express with accuracy the tone of an obedient humble servant when servility was thought to be expedient.”...
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