The Speech that Made Nixon's Dog Famous

Culture Watch

Mr. Olshaker is a longtime freelance writer whose work has appeared in many publications including the New York Times and TomPaine.com.

The night of September 23, 1952-50 years ago this week-39-year-old California Senator Richard Nixon appeared on nationwide television to answer charges concerning an "expense fund" he had been given by wealthy California businessmen. Emotionally distraught, under fire from enemies, betrayed by party colleagues only minutes earlier, the vice-presidential candidate made a half-hour appeal that not only saved his career from early ruin, but boosted the Republican party in mid-campaign and made him a hero to millions. The speech, best remembered for its mention of his dog Checkers, generated an outpouring of emotion unprecedented in the history of American presidential elections.

How did Nixon work such magic? And what kind of precedent did his performance and its dramatic aftermath set for future candidates for high office?

According to the conventional wisdom, the media and even modern technology in general were Nixon's repeated undoing-the televised 1960 presidential debates that gave the telegenic John F. Kennedy the edge; the press coverage which Nixon believed to be unfairly slanted against him, treating him as someone to "kick around"; even his own personally controlled media-the White House audiotape system-which brought him down in the end. Yet if we judge his 1952 financial explanation by its results, a compelling case could be made that Nixon was a uniquely gifted media genius.

The fund furor had begun five days earlier when a New York Post article stated that Nixon had received $18,235 from a total of 76 contributors. Was the money, as the New Republic charged, "a subsidy from wealthy Republicans who have a certain political axe they want young Nixon to wield," or were the donations intended merely to defray the political expenses of a poor-but-honest young senator? The New Republic pointed out that the contributors included real estate men, and that Nixon had voted against public housing and rent control. Also included were oil executives, whose interests Nixon had championed. The article noted that "the business firms with which [the contributors] are connected and the fields of industry and finance represented are very familiar to those who follow pressure politics in Washington and are informed about how much they invest in regular lobbying activities."

When the story of the fund unfolded, General Dwight Eisenhower was in the Midwest, spreading the word that as president he would clean up the "mess in Washington" by driving out the "crooks and cronies" of the Truman administration. Aides informed Eisenhower that it was the almost unanimous view of newsmen aboard the campaign train that he would lose unless he dropped Nixon as running mate.

Nixon's immediate reaction was to label the story of the fund a "typical left-wing smear." Campaigning in California, Nixon declared, "The purpose of those smears is to make me…relent and let up on my attacks on the Communists and crooks in the present administration."

However, it was clear to Nixon that his continued presence on the ticket would make a mockery of the anti-corruption theme unless he cleared his name. "The course he chose was so improbable that even Hollywood might have hesitated to accept such a script," Life magazine reported at the time.

When he arrived at the El Capitan Theater, an NBC television studio in Hollywood, Nixon had no written script. At his insistence, spectators were barred from the broadcast. Nixon told no one what he planned to say. Extra cameras were activated because the details of his speech were not known, and the technicians were uncertain as to whether he would remain seated at his desk. His wife Pat was seated on the stage several feet from him. As if the pressure weren't already high, a few minutes earlier Governor Thomas Dewey had called and told Nixon that Eisenhower's staff wanted him to submit his resignation at the end of the broadcast.

Speaking to more than 30 million television viewers and a huge radio audience, Nixon "exposed his life story with a strange mixture of pathos and condor," Life reported. "All the television lens saw was an earnest young man; the opening words revealed a deep hurt and a troubled heart." Nixon stated that the 76 contributors had asked for no special favors, expected none, and got none. All of the money had gone to "political expenses I did not think should be charged to the taxpayers of the United States."

"I am going to give this television and radio audience a complete financial history; everything I've earned, everything I've spent, everything I owe, and I want you to know the facts," he said. Most of his early life was spent in his family's grocery store. "The only reason we were able to make it go was because my mother and dad had five boys and we all worked in the store." He described his financial standing at each point in his life-college, marriage, law school, Navy, U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator. He went on to detail his modest holdings and considerable debts. The camera panned to his wife when Nixon said, "Pat doesn't own a mink coat."

Nixon announced that he would not quit as Ike's running mate unless the Republican National Committee asked him to, and called on listeners to send letters and wires to "help them decide."

After explaining his debts, Nixon added, "One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don't they'll probably be saying this about me, too-we did get something, a gift, after the election…the day before we left on this campaign trip, we got a message from the Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. It was a little cocker-spaniel dog…and our little girl Tricia, the six-year-old, named it Checkers. And you know the kids, like all kids, love the dog and…regardless of what they say about it, we're going to keep it."

At this point, Nixon had used only 15 minutes of his allotted time. He devoted the second half of the broadcast to an attack on the Truman administration and the Democratic ticket of Adlai Stevenson and John Sparkman. When he ran overtime, technicians cut him off in mid-sentence. By pure accident, the speech ended in the midst of an appeal for Eisenhower: "And remember, folks, Eisenhower is a great man, believe me. He's a great man .…"

He was deeply disappointed with his performance. "I couldn't do it. I wasn't any good," said Nixon, and he broke into sobs. He was especially upset that he was cut off before having a chance to give the address of the RNC. Studio technicians reassured him; some of the camera crew were weeping.

Eisenhower, with his wife Mamie and her mother, watched Nixon's broadcast in the manager's office of the Cleveland Public Auditorium, where he had delayed his speech on inflation so that Nixon's speech could be piped into the auditorium. Men and women in the auditorium wept openly as they listened to Nixon's voice. In the office, Mamie and her mother wept, and Eisenhower's eyes reportedly filled with tears.

When the speech ended, Eisenhower's press aide, James C. Hagerty, said, "General, you'll have to throw your speech away. Those people out there want to hear about Nixon." While Ike wrote notes for another speech, the crowd chanted, "We want Nixon." Rep. George Bender, who was presiding, shouted: "Are you in favor of Nixon?" and the crowd, as Newsweek reported, "went wild, screaming, whistling, and leaping from their seats." Eisenhower appeared and stated, "Tonight, I saw an example of courage. I have seen many brave men in tough situations. I have never seen any come through in better fashion than Senator Nixon did tonight…" He recalled a dramatic parallel from World War II. "In my command, I had a singularly brave and skillful leader…" He went on to compare young Nixon with the deceased General George Patton.

Significantly, despite such praise for Nixon, Eisenhower reserved judgment on whether or not to keep him on the ticket, asserting authority over his running mate by summoning him to meet him in Wheeling, West Virginia. Not about to be humiliated, Nixon insisted on flying to Missoula, Montana for a scheduled speech, declaring, "What more does he want? I'm not going to crawl on my hands and knees to him." Fortunately for Nixon, the enormously favorable emotional clamor his broadcast had created saved him from such a fate. After a call explaining that he was still on the ticket, Nixon flew to Wheeling and was greeted by Eisenhower. "Dick," Ike said, extending his hand, "you're my boy." Amid the cheering of the airport crowd, Nixon broke down in tears. Life stated, "This extraordinary moment was the extraordinary climax of a national outpouring of emotion which was without parallel in American politics."

While Republicans hailed the speech as a masterpiece, Democrats called it "soap opera." But no one disputed that it had been phenomenally effective. The RNC was flooded with telegrams, letters, and telephone calls which, by week's end, reached two million. The mail was 350 to 1 in favor of keeping Nixon on the ticket.

Editorial comment on the "Checkers" speech varied widely. The New York Post stated that "the corn overshadowed the drama," and that the question still unanswered was "whether it is ethical, defensible, or desirable for a member of the U.S. Senate to accept an 'expense fund' from members of wealthy special-interest groups that have a direct stake in the legislative business of the Senate."

The New York Journal American saw it differently: "Senator Nixon spoke from his heart in an eloquent and manly explanation of his financial affairs down to the last detail. He was fighting against what…amounted to a colossal smear…He was, in our opinion, simply magnificent."

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted, "Only a man of colossal nerve would undertake to convert the liability of his 'trust fund' into an asset by arguing with a straight face that he used it to save the taxpayers' money."

And the Dallas Morning News stated, "…no one who heard his frank talk to his country Tuesday night could fail to recognize that the man who faced his critics was the sort of he-man who has made the country what it is."

CBS Board Chairman William S. Paley once stated that 1952 was the first election year in which television was "a dominating factor," and "the degree to which it shaped the mind and behavior of the individual American voter, the electorate as a whole, and the candidates themselves, still remains to be fully comprehended." He called television "a contributing factor of enormous weight" in achieving a record voter turnout of 63 million. According to the Nielsen Television Index, the Nixon financial explanation was the most widely viewed event of the 1952 campaign.

Nixon had commanded the attention of "the largest television audience ever for any campaign speech," according to Kurt and Gladys Lang in their book Politics and Television, and had used the medium artfully to reach millions of hearts. Some observers have gone so far as to delve into the symbolism he used. Media critic Gilbert Seldes posed the question, "Did the camera panning over to Mrs. Nixon add the image of 'Whistler's Mother' (the pose was similar) to the verbal stimulus of Nixon's emphasis on 'Pat' and March 17 as her birthday?" The Langs also pointed out that Nixon's television appearance had transformed an issue of political morality into an issue of personal honesty and likability. This effect was revealed in "man in the street" reactions:

"The people who own dogs like I do are for Nixon. That story about the dog for his children made me love him."

"Nixon was so utterly sincere that no one could doubt his honesty."

September 23, 1952 was the day that a revolutionary new reality--the triumph of image and personality over ideas and substance in the television age--arrived to change the face of American politics forever. While "likability" is a factor that defies measurement, a strong case can be made that the matinee-idol charm of Presidents Reagan and Clinton helped both of them to win two terms and to weather the multiple scandals of their administrations. In the same vein, Al Gore's defeat of George W. Bush in three presidential-election debates was overshadowed by the negative focus on Gore's mannerisms and personality, ultimately working in Bush's favor. The likability factor was also dramatically evident in a New York Times-CBS poll taken last July-nearly 60 percent of respondents believed Bush wasn't coming clean on his controversial Harken Oil dealings, yet the same poll gave Bush a 70-percent approval rating.

Kurt and Gladys Lang also noted, "While there was much criticism of Nixon's unscrupulous use of theatrics, his 'soap-opera' appeal, the low level of intelligence at which he pitched his defense, and the use of show business methods in politics, no one could deny that his political technique had been effective. But what about 'appealing' one's case to the great American 'jury,' when there were no rules of evidence? Was television's capacity for revealing the truth so inescapable?"

The use of emotion-inciting propaganda techniques in a medium whose effects were so immediate had arguably created an instance of what legendary journalist Walter Lippmann called "mob law by modern electronics." Lippmann expressed dismay that a television audience was allowed to be judge of charges "so serious that for five days General Eisenhower reserved his own judgment on whether to clear him or condemn him." According to Lippmann, the personal defense should have been given to Eisenhower, not to the television audience. "What the viewers should have been given was General Eisenhower's decision, backed by a full and objective account of the facts and the points of law and of morals which are involved."

Nixon's broadcast truly overshadowed and even dissolved his scandal, as he succeeded in making the average voter-the citizen with a mortgage, bills, and pet dog-identify with his own financial predicament as a young legislator. Adding to this his emotional assertion that his integrity had been questioned and that he was deeply in trouble, he won the sympathy and support of millions, transforming himself from a liability into what Life called "a new force in the party with a prestige seldom enjoyed by a vice-presidential candidate." The half-hour speech still referred to by the name of a cocker spaniel worked an unlikely miracle almost certainly unmatched by any campaign speech in American politics before or since.

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K-BUG - 5/12/2003

Can you tell me What kind of dog did General George Patton have??