On this day in 1952, Richard Nixon gave his famous Checkers Speech. It stands out to me for the power of nonsense. It was about a special fund that was set up to pay for his expenses as a Senator. It doesn’t seem that he did anything wrong with regard to it. But it does strike me as rather typical Nixon — in the sleaziest sense. So he spent a half hour on television talking about it and the fact that he didn’t get any of the money or other special favors. But there was one thing he did get: a dog that his daughter named Checkers. He said, “Regardless of what they say about it, were gonna keep it.”
That’s a brilliant bit of political theater. Nixon was apparently unhappy that the speech had been named for that half minute bit. But that’s really all that anyone remembered: Nixon got a dog for his girls! The beginning of the speech is just him going over the allegations and defending himself. Then he gets into his finances and it is boring. That’s 18 minutes. Then there’s a good line about Pat not having a mink coat and the kids now having a dog. That’s just over a minute. Then we get ten minutes about how much Adlai Stevenson sucked. And he tops it off with an a capella rendition of “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” — or close enough.
What’s more remarkable about the speech is that it worked. Nixon actually tells the Checkers part of the story awkwardly and blows the punchline. But I think for most people it was: blah blah blah puppy blah blah blah. How could a man who got his daughters a dog be a crook? Of course, I continue to have a soft spot for Nixon precisely because he’s so awkward and seems so uncomfortable in his skin. Ultimately, I think he was a lost soul who thought that political power would give his life meaning. The Nixon we see in this speech is definitely the Nixon he thought the people wanted to see. And he was largely right.