Study Guide

Checkers Speech Analysis

By Richard Nixon

  • Rhetoric

    Logos

    A good speech uses every tool it can without compromising its message or clarity. There are elements of logos in Section 1 of the speech: Nixon provides evidence from an impartial audit by Price Waterhouse and a prestigious law firm. He argues that the fund was neither secret nor illegal and that the fund existed solely to remove a financial burden from taxpayers.

    It is our conclusion that Senator Nixon did not obtain any financial gain from the collection and disbursement of the funds by Dana Smith; that Senator Nixon did not violate any federal or state law by reason of the operation of the fund; and that neither the portion of the fund paid by Dana Smith directly to third persons, nor the portion paid to Senator Nixon, to reimburse him for office expenses, constituted income in a sense which was either reportable or taxable as income under income tax laws. (66)

    How can you argue with the facts? Not to mention that Price Waterhouse are the folks that keep the Oscar winners totally secret. They're totally incorruptible.

    Ethos

    We know you're waiting for the biggie (ahem, Checkers pathos), but there are elements of ethos throughout Sections 1 and 2 of the speech, so let's take a look at those first.

    First, Nixon establishes the bona fides of the accounting and legal firms that he's asked to review the legality of the fund:

    It is an audit made by Price Waterhouse & Co. firm, and the legal opinion by Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher, lawyers in Los Angeles, the biggest law firm, and incidentally, one of the best ones in Los Angeles. (64)

    One of the best ones in Los Angeles. Guess he Yelped it.

    Next, he establishes his own cred as a boy from humble beginnings who worked hard to put himself through college and law school and married a great gal. And aw shucks, he served his country in WWII:

    Let me say that my service record was not a particularly unusual one. I went to the south pacific. I guess I'm entitled to a couple of battle stars. I got a couple of letters of commendation But I was just there when the bombs were falling. (83-86)

    Would anyone who put himself in harm's way for his country stoop to cheating the good people of said country?

    Pathos

    Okay, okay. Logos and Ethos ultimately play second and third fiddle to the rhetorical strategy that seeps into almost every word of the speech: pathos.

    This speech is the poster child of emotional appeals in American political history. Nixon throws the pity book at his audience. He's just a struggling guy like them:

    We had a rather difficult time after we were married, like so many of the young couples who might be listening to us. (78)

    In fact, Pat might be broke some day:

    I have just $4,000 in life insurance, plus my GI policy which I have never been able to convert, and which will run out in two years. (111)

    He even pays 4% interest on a loan his parents gave him because they worked so hard for the money themselves.

    He reads a letter from an ardent supporter who donated as much she could afford, and of course nobly refuses to cash the check. He mentions the one political gift he did receive, a cute little cocker spaniel, and refuses to break his children's hearts by giving it back.

    A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day we left before this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?

    It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it. (133-136)

    Kids and dogs…sniff…just give us a second.

    Just as we're about to pull ourselves together, he lets us know how agonizing this has all been for him (it probably was):

    It isn't easy to come before a nation-wide audience and bare your life, as I have done. (137)

    You get the idea.

    The speech is full of textbook examples of pathos appeals. In fact, it goes so far with them that it's since garnered a reputation of being totally sappy and corny.

    Even so, at the time Nixon gave the speech, these appeals to pathos resonated powerfully and convincingly among its target audience. Even Mamie Eisenhower (Ike's wife) had tears streaming down her faced as she watched. By some estimates, the speech provoked over four million people to call, write, or telegraph their support.

    Part of what makes this speech so amazing is that, by all accounts, Nixon was not naturally an emotional man. He was socially awkward, aloof, and private. He had a reputation for being a vindictive, nasty guy. He was right—baring his life could not have been easy at all. But that's what the tools of rhetoric are for: to create a convincing picture of yourself and your arguments for an audience.

    And we thought Ronald Reagan was the best California actor in politics…

  • Structure

    The Checkers Speech was put together in a hurry, so it's not exactly the most tightly written or masterfully organized speech. And it's definitely not the most eloquent or economical, but that's part of the speech's charm. It is rough, down-to-earth, and conversational. That's part of the genius of the speech, and also its greatest failing. Though the speech lacks formal organization, it can be categorized into three general thematic areas.

    How it Breaks Down

    Addressing the "Secret Fund"

    Nixon begins the speech by discussing the nature of the political fund and how it's all squeaky clean and above board. None of the contributors ever got any special favors for donating to the fund. His reasons for maintaining a fund in the first place, namely that he isn't rich, segues nicely into the next section.

    A Boy and His Dog

    Nixon gives a broad-strokes financial history of his entire adult life beginning with his family's little grocery store. He discusses his assets, his modest income, and his debts; it's a way of justifying why he couldn't self-fund all his political expenses.

    And here's the iconic moment of the speech: he talks about the only political gift he freely admits to receiving—a cocker spaniel puppy, Checkers. His daughters love the dog and he's not giving him back.

    The Switcheroo

    Nixon calls on his detractors to open themselves up to be independently audited and to bare their own financial history for the American public. He praises Eisenhower and attacks his opponents as Commie-lovers. He concludes the speech by throwing himself on the mercy of the American people, saying they should voice their opinions on whether he should still be the Vice-Presidential candidate.

  • Tone

    Conversational

    Nixon spent an enormous amount of time on this speech addressing "you." He was speaking directly to the American public as individuals, and he did it in a tone that was strikingly informal for what was certain dire circumstances.

    • Well, then, some of you will say, and rightly, "Well, what did you use the fund for, Senator? Why did you have to have it?" (25-26)
    • Let me say, incidentally, that some of you may say, "Well, that is all right, Senator, that is your explanation, but have you got any proof?" (61)

    It's as if the Nixons invited you into their home and sat you down to have a little chat about this whole "fund" mix up, and if you would just listen they're sure they can clear this whole silly thing up. Oh, and if it's no trouble, would you mind writing my superiors and pulling my career out of the fire?

    Thanks, guys.

  • Writing Style

    Informal

    Nixon's style here is peculiar, to say the least. For one thing, it's messy. The opening of the speech is almost rambling, the sentence structure throughout is convoluted and inelegant.

    Check out this run-on sentence:

    That is not Nixon speaking, but it is an independent audit which was requested because I want the American people to know all the facts and I am not afraid of having independent people go in and check the facts, and that is exactly what they did. (66)

    Nixon's trying to present all the information he needs to exonerate himself, but he's doing it as part of a conversation, so he doesn't want to wrap it in legalese that the public might not understand.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title is actually a matter of some contention. While the majority of the planet recognizes this speech as the Checkers Speech, named after his lovable little pup, Nixon and his political allies knew it by a different name: The Fund Speech.

    Nixon didn't care for "The Checkers Speech," as it highlighted the sappy and overly dramatic aspects of the speech. Referring to it as the Fund Speech focused on the issue of the false allegations.

    Sorry, Nixon. We're going with Checkers on this one.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    My Fellow Americans, I come before you tonight as a candidate for the Vice-Presidency and as a man whose honesty and integrity has been questioned. (1)

    The opening lines are a warm-up. Nixon's setting you up for a switcheroo, explaining how the political establishment (read, Democrats) enjoy mudslinging, and how Nixon, man of integrity that he is, thinks America deserves something more from its representatives.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    But let me just say this last word. Regardless of what happens, I am going to continue this fight. I am going to campaign up and down America until we drive the crooks and the Communists and those that defend them out of Washington, and remember folks, Eisenhower is a great man. Folks, he is a great man, and a vote for Eisenhower is a vote for what is good for America. (217-220)

    If you watch the speech, you'll notice that Nixon is actually cut off towards the end. He ran over the 30 minutes that the network allotted him, and they switched to other programming in the middle of his endorsement of Eisenhower.

    Did he think he was accepting an Oscar or something?

    Nixon had mixed feelings about Eisenhower personally at this point because hadn't come to his defense about the secret fund allegations. Plus, he knew that Eisenhower had strongly hinted that Nixon should resign from the ticket at the end of the speech. Praising Ike was a savvy political move disguised as a righteous show of support for Eisenhower and anti-communism.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    The Checkers Speech itself isn't all that hard to read: in fact, it's designed that way. Nixon was reaching out to average Americans, and appeals like that generally don't need a road map or a dictionary. However, the ramifications and political backdrop require a somewhat broader contextual understanding. (Yeah, that's what we're here for. Take a click around.)

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Nixon's Defense

    Price Waterhouse accountants (64)
    Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher Auditing Company (64-66)
    The charges alleged by the New York Post (8, 17-25)
    "Meet the Press" (18)
    Peter Edson, journalist (18)
    Governor Sherman Adams, Eisenhower's Chief of Staff (63)

    Nixon's Emotional Appeals

    Pat Nixon (48-53, 77, 89, 97, 112, 127-129)
    Checkers the dog (132-136)
    Abraham Lincoln (144)

    Nixon's Attacks

    Stephen Mitchell (139-142)
    Adlai Stevenson II (143, 146, 148-149, 153, 155, 175, 178, 181, 188)
    John Sparkman (46, 151, 153, 155)
    Communism (57, 173, 183, 188, 190, 219)
    Truman Administration (3, 24, 57, 172, 178)

    References to This Text

    Virtually any book on Nixon will include a reference to this speech as one of the formative moments of his career. William Safire describes the term "Checkers Speech" as any speech made by a politician that is emotionally charged in his Political Dictionary.

  • Trivia

    Checkers died in 1964, and was buried at Wantagh, NY, on Long Island. You can still visit the pooch's grave today, where people continue to leave flowers and flags. (Source)

    Nixon celebrated the anniversary of the Checkers Speech every single year, and considered the speech one of his crowning achievements. (Source)

    After the fund ordeal was over, Nixon founded a club called the Order of the Hound's Tooth, and its membership consisted primarily of those close friends and family who helped him through the crisis. They probably had pretty sweet jackets. (Source)

    Nixon only lost two elections: one to JFK in 1960 for the presidency, and one to Pat Brown for the governor of California in 1962. The loss to Kennedy has been credited in part to the shadow cast by the Checkers Speech, as well as Kennedy's better performances (and hotter appearance) in televised debates. Television became the medium of choice in the political process as a result of…the Checkers Speech. (Source)