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It was 1952, and the future had never looked so bright for the Republican Party. Anyone to the left of President Harry Truman could be called a communist, many of the returning big-name war heroes were card-carrying Republicans, and Truman in 1952 was about as popular as Internet Explorer today.
After the absolute face-wrecking the Republicans suffered through the long years of FDR's reign, things finally started to turn around for the Grand Old Party. (If you're unfamiliar with FDR and his expansive policies, Shmoop can help.) Election year 1952 was the first in a while where the GOP had a decent shot at taking the whole enchilada, especially with beloved general and WWII hero Dwight D. Eisenhower as their candidate.
The Democratic Party wasn't happy. Two years earlier, Truman had announced he wouldn't run for re-election. Maybe this was because his presidential approval rating at the time was the lowest of any president in the 20th century at a staggering 22%.
This left the Democrats in a tough spot: they hadn't lost a presidential election in twenty years thanks to the giant benevolent shadow Franklin Delano Roosevelt had cast over the American political landscape. Unfortunately for the Democrats, Truman had used up virtually all of the goodwill FDR had generated, and he left office having severely damaged Democrat popularity with the stalemate in the Korean War and corruption in his administration.
Initially it looked like Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver, with his reputation for being tough on crime and corruption, would be the front runner for the Dems' nomination. Problem was, the Democrat party bosses didn't like him. The 1950s were still dominated by the political bosses and machine-style politics that caught so much flak as being elitist, corrupt, and wildly unethical, which of course it was.
Kefauver's crusade on crime and corruption had revealed a number of connections between organized crime and the Democratic Party, leaving party leaders understandably queasy at the idea of this guy receiving the nomination. There was a desperate scramble to find someone, anyone, who might be a viable candidate but wouldn't blow up the party and threaten the bosses' cushy jobs.
Truman himself was one such party boss, and after his announcement not to run he began courting Adlai Ewing Stevenson II as a potential candidate. Stevenson, at the time running for reelection as governor of Illinois, politely declined. Truman had never been one to take no for an answer, and so naturally the party bosses set out to quietly but doggedly build support for Stevenson in order to lure him to run.
As Kefauver kept racking up primary wins, support for Stevenson (who still denied any interest in running for the presidency) grew with the help and money (mostly money) of the party bosses. This would reach hilarious heights at the Democratic National Convention, when a still-definitely-not-running Stevenson was convinced to give the welcoming address. This speech, full of charm and wit, caused a surge in support for his candidacy. Which basically left Stevenson with no choice but to finally relent under pressure.
Adlai Stevenson II, who won no primaries, raised no money, and ran no campaign, got the Democratic nomination.
This set the stage for the presidential race, which initially looked to be little more than a Stevenson-Eisenhower showdown. The campaigns began predictably, with Republicans attacking Democrats on the triple front of "Korea, communism, and corruption" which had resonated so well with the American public. The Democrats countered by accusing the Republicans of eroding civil liberties and fear-mongering. Rather than distance themselves from the rampant McCarthyism that swept through the nation, the Republicans embraced it.
At the end of the day, the election was mostly defined by the personalities of the opposing candidates. Eisenhower was hugely popular, appealing to all patriots at a time when not being a patriot might be construed as a criminal offense. Stevenson, on the other hand, was a bit of an egghead, and though he appealed to intellectuals and academics, he wasn't exactly the most relatable guy.
Okay, we know you're wondering where Nixon factors into all of this. Hold your horses—we're getting to him.
Running mates are traditionally used to either shore up perceived weaknesses of the presidential candidate or to bolster areas of strength. In this election, however, they proved to be deciding factors. Eisenhower chose Richard Nixon as his running mate to balance the ticket, appease the right wing "Old Guard" Republicans, and court the female vote. Stevenson, on the other hand, went with Senator John Sparkman from Alabama: a southern boy who was supposed to counterbalance Stevenson's more elitist edges.
Sparkman wasn't a bad choice, but Nixon was better. Between Eisenhower's invincible popularity, Nixon's fiery anti-communist rhetoric, and a political climate increasingly hostile to the Democratic Party, it seemed like the Democrats were likely to be served up a shellacking of historic proportions.
But when has anything ever been that simple in politics? Hint: Never.
Sudden catastrophe struck in September of 1952, when the New York Post ran an article headlined "Secret Rich Men's Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond his Salary." The Post accused Nixon of misappropriating a fund of $18,235, a huge sum in the early fifties (around $200,000 today). It's thought that the story was leaked by an angry supporter of presidential hopeful and future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, who believed that Nixon back-stabbed him at the Republican convention in order to give the nomination to Eisenhower.
The attack triggered a plummet in GOP polls and threatened to derail the whole campaign, which rested on an anti-corruption platform. Nixon was in the doghouse; even Eisenhower wanted him to resign from the ticket.
Desperate to save both the campaign and his career, Nixon hatched a plan—a desperate gamble—to throw himself and the ticket at the mercy of the American people. He'd prove himself to be an innocent, average American wrongfully accused of corruption by the most staunchly corrupt politicians and media themselves. He'd go on TV and tell people, "I'm not corrupt—my wife doesn't own a mink coat, I have a little dog named Checkers, and I'm just like you."
Oh, hey. It worked.
The speech saved his career and would lead to one of the biggest blowouts in American electoral history. More than that, it unleashed TV as a new and potent tool in the American political landscape and showed that the confessional approach to politics worked.
Not bad for a half hour's work.