Nixon’s “Checkers” Speech

Richard Nixon was a Republican member of the House of Representatives since the mid-1940s. General Eisenhower, the 1952 Republican nominee for the presidency, picked Nixon to be his running mate. Nixon was publicly accused of having a secret slush fund for his campaign. These allegations suggested that Nixon improperly accepted gifts from interest groups and other boosters who expected him to give special favors to the contributors. The Sacramento Bee termed Nixon, “the pet protégé of a special interest group of rich southern Californians … their front man, if not, indeed, their lobbyist.”

Many Republican leaders thought that these allegations created a serious threat to Eisenhower’s chances of victory, and were lobbying for Nixon to step down from the presidential race. The influential Washington Post and New York Herald-Tribune both called for Nixon to leave the ticket. Over 100 newspapers would editorialize about the Fund. On the morning of September 20, public opinion was running two to one against Nixon.

Nixon took his case to the American people in a nationally televised speech, for which his party bought time in the slot following the popular The Texaco Star Theatre. The choice of time slot and the speech itself exhibited a stunning level of acumen regarding the power and workings of television. Nixon’s speech was seen and heard by about 60 million Americans, including the largest television audience to that time. Sixty-two television stations and 750 radio stations had arranged to carry Nixon’s speech.

Nixon brought his wife onto the stage to remind the audience that he was an upstanding family man. In order to emphasize his middle class standing, Nixon stated that there were no mink coats for the Nixons. Nixon said that he was “proud of the fact that Pat Nixon wears a “good Republican cloth coat,” and she’s going to continue to.” As the speech was winding down, Nixon confessed to yet another “crime” (in effect demonstrating his honesty and integrity) but announced that he was going to stand firm on his decision to keep one questionable contribution. That gift was a black-and-white dog that his children had named Checkers. “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, love that dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.”

The speech was a huge success. The Republican National Committee (RNC) and other political offices received millions of telegrams and phone calls supporting Nixon. President Eisenhower was impressed enough to keep Nixon on the ticket. A 1999 poll of leading communication scholars ranked the address as the sixth most important American speech of the 20th century.