Call it puppy love.
In 1952, Vice-President wannabe Richard M. Nixon was in deep trouble. Nixon, the mighty avenger of corruption in politics, had just been accused of a having a secret slush fund that kept his wife in fancy clothes and had the Nixons living way beyond their means.
Yep, it's that same Richard Nixon who was elected President in 1968 and resigned in disgrace in 1974 (the only President to ever do so). But in 1952, Nixon was just a senator and veteran of modest means in the world of McCarthy-era politics, making his name in the Senate as an anti-corruption and anti-Communist crusader.
But he had his sights set on higher office.
Having secured the Republican Presidential nomination, Dwight D. Eisenhower was in need of a running mate. Nixon, a young and charismatic rising star in the Republican Party, was a natural choice due to his hardline stance against the Russkies and their global communist agenda. The Eisenhower-Nixon ticket promised an antidote to the corruption they saw running rampant in government and a replacement for the "soft on communism" Truman administration.
Then came a bombshell.
In the midst of the election campaign, The New York Post ran an article titled "Secret Rich Men's Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary." The article alleged that Nixon had access to a hidden fund of $18,000 that he was using to live large. Nixon did, in fact, have a fund provided by some wealthy buddies that he used to defray political expenses that weren't covered by his Senate allowance. It wasn't illegal, but it raised some ethical questions, especially considering that anti-corruption was the centerpiece of the Republican campaign.
The "scandal" threatened to blow up the Republican party, generating outrage from voters and prompting party members to demand that Nixon be removed from the 1952 ticket. Even Eisenhower hoped he'd resign and stave off further damage to the party's chances to win back the White House.
Nixon knew he had to do some major damage control before this thing ran away from him completely. He decided to take his case straight to the American people. The Republican party purchased some television time, and Nixon addressed the nation in a speech that he hoped would prove to the nation that he was an honest man—financially struggling just like them—who'd never think of cheating his constituents by accepting gifts or secret cash for personal use.
Nixon spoke without a script, using just an outline and some notes for the speech. He wanted it to sound spontaneous and heartfelt. With his wife, Pat, gazing rapturously from the other side of the room, he opened up his entire financial history to his listeners, starting with his humble beginnings working at his parents' grocery store to put himself through college and law school. He discussed the so-called secret fund (which wasn't secret at all), explaining that it paid for political expenses that he didn't want to charge to the American taxpayers. He'd never think of accepting gifts or contributions in exchange for political favors.
Nixon admitted to accepting one gift, though.
One day, he told his listeners, he got a call from the train station in Baltimore to come pick up a package. When he got there, he found it was a cocker spaniel puppy, a gift from a man who'd heard him mention that his daughters always wanted a dog. Because the puppy was black and white, they named him Checkers. Nixon told the nation that little six-year-old Tricia loved that puppy, and he wasn't about to give him back.
That was the clincher.
Not many people today remember why Nixon even gave this speech, but boy do they remember the puppy. Nixon called it the "Fund Speech," but it lived on in American and Shmoop history as the "Checkers Speech." The American people lapped it up. They loved Nixon's emotional appeal to truth, justice, and the family dog, calling and writing in by the millions to beg Nixon to stay on the ticket. Eisenhower agreed, reluctantly at first, and the Republicans went on to win the general election that November.
Harry S. Truman famously said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." Nixon may not have agreed with anything else Truman said, but we're sure he'd have seconded that. For Nixon, happiness—and political salvation—really was a warm puppy.
It's a little sad that, looking back, the most memorable thing about this speech is a puppy. Don't get us wrong—we love puppies. Seriously, just look at our YouTube history. Plus, full disclosure: Shmoop named its stuffed dog Checkers.
Yeah, Shmoop is old.
There's so much more to this speech than little Checkers, cute as he was. But Americans fell hard for Nixon's personal, emotional revelations about his family, including Checkers—and ever since, politicians have learned that they have to win hearts as well as minds if they want to get elected. It's almost a requirement these days for people running for office to go on TV, spill their guts in ultra-close-ups, and weep about their families' humble backgrounds. The humbler the better. Parents were coal miners or poor farmers? Perfect. They're just plain folks like the rest of us, is the message.
You can thank the Checkers Speech for that. Believe it or not, in pre-talk-show days, most people thought their private lives should be, well, private. No politician had ever gone on TV and spoken to the American public up close and personal about such embarrassing personal stuff. Many critics thought it was a shameless, shocking plea for sympathy. These days, there's no shame or shock.
We've heard it all.
The speech also demonstrated for the first time the power of television to shape opinion and influence political outcomes. Prior to Checkers, there were really only three ways to get news: the older than dirt word-of-mouth method; the slightly less old and today in its death-throes newspaper; and radio. Radio was made popular by FDR and his famous fireside chats, and was successful mostly because it was cheap and reliable. TVs had been around since as early as the 1920s, but few Americans could afford them. Not to mention that the screens were the size of an iPad Mini, and anyway, The Bachelor wouldn't be on for another half-century or so.
In the years after World War II, this changed. The economy bounced back from the Great Depression and soldiers came home wanting to settle down and live the American Dream, which at the time consisted mostly of earning a wage, having a family, and buying things. Along with washing machines and refrigerators, television was becoming a necessity for the successful all-American home. By 1952, just under half of American households owned a TV.
Except for a few excursions on largely local levels, the TV audience went untapped by politicians until the Checkers Speech. After Nixon got the ball rolling, television became a major force in politics as pols saw how the tear-jerking telecast moved millions of Americans to political action. Two years later, the live telecast of the Army-McCarthy hearings almost instantly brought down the career of the powerful Senator Joseph McCarthy. A few years after that, TV would be blamed (or credited, depending on political leanings), for Nixon's loss to JFK in the 1960 presidential election.
Now you can watch CSPAN all day and hear the riveting debates of the Special Congressional Subcommittee on the Health, Safety, and Environmental Concerns of Microbeads in Soaps. You won't, but you could. It's estimated that federal candidates will spend over four billion dollars this year on ads alone. Add to that 24/7 news coverage with TMI about every political race and candidate, and you've got a television industry that dominates the political conversation (even if the internet is breathing down its back).
The Checkers Speech wasn't just about Nixon's past. It was about the future.
Brief Bio of Nixon, Courtesy of the Nixon Library
Exactly what it says on the tin. The Nixon Library has everything you want to know about the guy and his story.
What He Said
A history prof at Texas A&M has been publishing the Nixon tapes as they became available. You can binge-listen to the tapes or read the transcripts.
We Hate to Bring It Up Again, But…
He really was a crook.
On the Other Hand…
Nixon did some cool stuff while he was in politics. There's a website devoted to his positive legacy, too.
In Case You Were Wondering…
Yes, there is a Presidential Pet Museum, at which we learn that Checkers lived to see the White House.
It Had Legs
A decent overview of the Checkers Speech and its continued significance.
The Checkers Speech at 60
A solid summary of the speech and its surrounding context, as well as a look at why it's still important.
Heartwarming or Revolting?
On what would have been the 100th birthday year of Richard and Pat Nixon, The New Yorker magazine lays out two ways of looking at the Checkers Speech.
In 2012, Douglas McGrath wrote a play about the whole Checkers affair.
The Checkers Speech on YouTube
Forgive the potato quality; it was 1952 after all.
Here's an interview discussing the case that started Nixon's career: his prosecution of Alger Hiss, suspected Soviet spy. The site has a blog with lots of other podcasts, mostly positive, about Nixon.
You Could Write a Book About It
Checkers goes to the Beach
The type of propaganda that the Nixons produced in order to keep up their perfectly happy all-American family image.
At Least Somebody Loves Him
Here's Pat Nixon watching her husband give the Checkers speech.
Who's a Good Dog?
It was totally worth it.