On Sept. 23, 1952, vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon gave a speech defending the existence of a controversial campaign fund. His discussion of his family life, including a mention of the family dog named Checkers, drew sympathy from the public, helping him maintain his position on the presidential ticket.
The Checkers Speech
In July 1952, California Sen. Richard Nixon was selected at the Republican Convention as the running mate for presidential nominee Dwight Eisenhower. Two months later, however, Nixon’s place on the ballot was jeopardized by a Sept. 19 report in the New York Post, titled “Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary,” that alleged Nixon had received $18,235 in secret campaign donations from 76 people, primarily California businessmen.
Though the fund was legal, it was an embarrassment for Nixon and the Eisenhower campaign, which had railed against government corruption. Some Eisenhower staffers and Republican-leaning papers called for Nixon to be dropped from the ticket. Nixon initially called the report a “smear” put forth by “Communists and the crooks” in the government, but that explanation was not well received.
Republican National Committee leaders suggested that Nixon explain the fund in a nationally televised address. After a late night telephone conversation with Eisenhower on Sept. 21, Nixon left the campaign trail in Portland, Ore., to fly to Los Angeles, where he would deliver the speech at the El Capitan Theatre. The RNC purchased a half-hour television block on NBC following a popular show hosted by Milton Berle.
The Miller Center of Public Affairs provides the video and transcript of the speech.
Nixon arrived at the studio with only an outline of the speech written. He decided to speak primarily from memory, says Lee Huebner, a George Washington University professor and former Nixon speechwriter, because using a script would “forfeit the ‘spark of spontaniety’ he valued so highly.”
Nixon was aware that the speech might determine his political future. New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, a Nixon supporter who had been influential in putting him on the ticket, had told him that only an overwhelmingly positive response to the speech could guarantee his place as Eisenhower’s running mate. On the day of the speech, Dewey phoned Nixon again to tell him that Eisenhower’s aides were asking that he close the speech by offering his resignation; Nixon refused to comply with this request.
Sitting behind a desk, with his wife Pat seated on the side of the stage, Nixon spoke with “composure and assurance,” described The New York Times, as he stressed that he had only used the funds for political expenses and not for personal use.
Sources in this Story
- Time: The Remarkable Tornado
- Nixon Foundation: Checkers Speech at 60
- The New York Times: Nixon Leaves Fate to G.O.P. Chiefs
- History News Network: The Speech that Made Nixon’s Dog Famous
- U.S. News & World Report: The 1952 Checkers Speech: The Dog Carries the Day for Richard Nixon
- PBS: Nixon
- Time: Richard Nixon: I Have Never Been a Quitter
He used personal anecdotes to drive the message, speaking candidly about his humble upbringing and his personal finances. “I should say this, that Pat doesn't have a mink coat,” he declared. “But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she’d look good in anything.”
He also mentioned that he had received a gift from a supporter in Texas: “You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl Tricia, the 6-year old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
Nixon spent the second half of the speech criticizing President Truman and the Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson. He concluded by asking viewers to write the RNC giving their opinion on whether he should remain on the ticket. His final lines, praising Eisenhower, were cut off, as he had run over the 30 minutes.
Edward Olshaker writes for the History News Network, “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.”
The 60 television million viewers were similarly moved by the speech. “His revelations came across as painful, anguishing for everyone watching,” says Brandeis University professor Thomas Doherty. Letters to the RNC supported Nixon by a margin of 350 to 1. Most importantly for him, Eisenhower decided to keep him on the ticket, inviting him to a campaign rally in Wheeling W.V., where he told him, “Dick, you’re my boy.”
Eisenhower and Nixon went on to easily defeat Stevenson in the general election. The “Checkers” speech is often credited with saving Nixon’s political career, which eventually led to him to the presidency in 1968.
The speech also demonstrated the influence television could have in politics. Huebner calls the speech a “turning point in the history of political communication,” adding, “In one-half hour, television had become a central instrument of political leverage, and neither the traditional press nor traditional forms of power brokering would recover their previous influence.”
David Lagesse writes in U.S. New & World Report, “The speech now seems quaint at best, humorous at worst. For one looking back, the 1952 Checkers speech may seem mawkish, syrupy, and the height of insincerity. But that perception risks missing the speech's power. That TV address … launched American politics on a path that still guides it today. Nixon sensed the power of TV to shape a politician’s image and how image would shape politics.”
Biography: Richard Nixon
Nixon rose from humble beginnings in Whittier, Calif., to graduate from Duke Law School and join the Navy. A tenacious, hard-working loner with a distaste for elites and intellectuals, he became a congressman in 1946 and senator in 1950.
He led the investigation against alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss and gained a reputation as a strong anti-communist, which helped him gain the nomination as Eisenhower’s vice president.
He served two terms as vice president and ran for president in 1960, but lost a close and disputed election to John F. Kennedy. He returned to California and lost the 1962 gubernatorial election, after which he told reporters, “You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
His political career appeared to be over, but, in typical Nixon fashion, he would return to politics and win the 1968 presidential election. “He kept losing it, tumbling to great depths, then grimly climbing back,” wrote Time in his obituary.
After resigning from the presidency, he spent his later life traveling, writing and speaking about foreign policy. He died on April 22, 1994, after suffering a stroke.
The Richard Nixon Library features biographies for Nixon and his wife, resources on the Vietnam War, an index of books written by Nixon, and a description of the library archives.
The Nixon Presidential Library & Museum features a large collection of documents written and received by Nixon, as well as the Watergate Tapes.