Richard Nixon, hotshot VP candidate on the 1952 Republican presidential ticket, went on TV and spilled his guts to the American public. The goal? To save his political life and deny allegations of a shady "secret fund" supported by wealthy donors and spent for his personal use. His message: the fund was legal and legit, and he's an honest, hardworking family man of modest means who'd never accept a gift in exchange for political favors.
But there was this puppy…
The Checkers Speech was a brilliant move by a guy fighting for his political life.
The Checkers Speech was responsible for the confessional, emotional political speeches we're so sick of hearing today.
Richard Nixon, scrambling to preserve both his political career and Republican hopes of victory in the 1952 presidential election, planned a speech addressing his alleged misappropriation of a "secret fund." Nixon's "I'm just a regular guy" approach plus an unprecedented national audience via TV and radio left an indelible mark on American political strategy and propelled the Republicans to an overwhelming victory in the election.
The broadcast was carefully and purposefully orchestrated by Nixon to send a two-fold message:
In typical Nixon fashion, however, the speech wasn't merely defensive: from the outset it was a thinly veiled and unapologetic attack on his critics as much as a protest of innocence. Nixon began by explaining the circumstances around this definitely-not-secret fund, and then took it a step further: he delivered "a complete financial history" (70) of his adult life. It was an unprecedented move, and a brilliant one for the purposes of the campaign.
It was also a highly embarrassing move that would follow Nixon for the rest of his career, not to mention one which his wife Pat vehemently opposed. Nixon insisted on the strategy, saying that "people in political life have to live in a fishbowl." It was way more exposure than the average public figure might want, but Nixon saw the humiliation as necessary.
It's important to note that the Nixons, especially Pat, did see this whole affair as an embarrassment. In the speech, they come off as a down-to-earth family that was happy enough with their modest means, and happier still to bare their souls (and worse, their finances and hefty debt) to the American public on a large political stage. The only reason Nixon put up with this in the first place was because of how thoroughly the press had backed him into a corner. He saw this as the only way to fight himself out of it.
The historic bit about the family dog Checkers wasn't really meant to be the crux of the speech. Nixon basically threw it in there as a sort of callback to a similar stunt FDR pulled in a speech about his own dog, Fala. This was a little different, since Fala had been used to attack FDR politically. Checkers, on the other hand, was brought up by Nixon exclusively for the emotional appeal.
After he concluded his remarks on his financial history, he turned to attack his opponents. Rather than the fiery Nixon one might expect, however, his attacks continued in the same self-righteous and self-pitying tone that had positively dripped throughout the speech. It was a tone that would come to be constantly associated with Nixon—one that would see him through his greatest triumphs and greatest failings.
Nixon categorically denies an inappropriate secret fund, and to support his testimony, provides an in-depth summary of his assets—including a dog named Checkers—in order to prove what an honest and upstanding American family man he is.