Checkers Speech | Study Guide

Richard Nixon

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Checkers Speech | Summary & Analysis



Nixon's Fund Scandal

Richard Nixon (1913–94) delivered his Checkers Speech on September 23, 1952,to address allegations that he misappropriated campaign funds for his personal use. While the allegation came to light in 1952, "The Fund," as it was called, was established shortly after California elected Nixon to the Senate in 1950.

In order to win reelection, Nixon's campaign manager Murray Chotiner (1909–74) and chairman Bernie Brennan suggested that for the entire six-year period of Nixon's term in the Senate, he should be campaigning for his next term. Campaign treasurer Dana Smith then suggested they establish a fund for political costs that Nixon would self-administer, meaning that he would be in charge of all spending.According to Smith, costs covered by the fund would include travel, materials needed to correspond with backers, and campaign Christmas cards, among other expenses.

This fund became public knowledge in 1952, after Nixon was announced as Dwight Eisenhower's (1890–1969) running mate at the Republican National Convention in July. That September, during an appearance on Meet the Press (a Sunday morning talk show), Nixon was asked about the fund. He explained that it was not a secret and that Dana Smith could be reached for more information. Peter Edson, the reporter who asked him about the fund, then wrote a column about the fund that indicated that it represented no wrongdoing. However, journalist Leo Katcher wrote about it for the New York Post in an article titled "Secret Rich Men's Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary," claiming that the fund was a means by which millionaires could give money to Nixon for his own use.

A scandal ensued, with leaders on the left, like Democratic National Committee Chairman Stephen Mitchell (1903–74) calling on the Republicans to drop Nixon from the ticket. Nixon was soon being heckled about the fund at campaign stops, and the media began calling for him to leave the race. The Checkers Speech, delivered on television on September 23 (around a week after Katcher's article was published), was Nixon's attempt to mitigate public outrage and explain the fund ahead of the November election.

The Checkers Speech

In the Checkers Speech, Nixon begins by addressing the scandal that surrounded the fund. He asserts that the money was being used properly and that it was not a secret, pointing out that he himself had mentioned it on television in recent weeks. Then he goes on to offer a lengthy explanation of his finances, explaining that campaigning is so expensive that someone like him—with no family wealth or fortune—would struggle to cover costs. According to Nixon that is why the fund was necessary. He explains that his family lived modestly and that he never accepted gifts on the campaign trail. He then notes that there was one exception; after he mentioned at a campaign stop that his daughter wanted a dog, a local supporter gave them one. He says that they named the dog Checkers and planned to keep it. This is where the speech eventually got its name.

As the speech goes on, Nixon suggests that his opponents and critics should themselves offer transparent financial disclosures, insinuating that if they do not, they must be hiding something. He also accuses the Democratic Party of being soft on communism and encourages voters to vote for Dwight Eisenhower for president. He ends the speech by asking the public to write to the Republican National Committee (RNC) to tell leadership if they want him to leave the Republican ticket and promises to abide by the decision made by the RNC and by voters.

Money in Politics

The allegation that Richard Nixon was using a secret fund of campaign contributions for his own personal expenses was rooted in concerns regarding corruption in government. Nixon was accused of being "bought" by wealthy donors, meaning that his critics feared his use of money for personal costs could allow contributors to influence his political stances through their donations. This was a serious concern, and one that remains critical to political debate and campaign financing.

However, during the Checkers Speech, Nixon argued that he used the fund properly, reserving it for political costs that he was unable to pay out of pocket because, unlike his critics and opponents, he was not independently wealthy. Nixon contends that cost was a barrier that he would not have been able to overcome if he had to rely on his income as a senator alone. In the speech, he says that it is more corrupt for campaigning to be the domain of the rich than for him to have a fund of donations from wealthy backers.

In the Checkers Speech, Nixon sets up a false dichotomy: a rhetorical device to make it seem like there are only two possible choices. In this case, the false dichotomy is about who is corrupt. Is it Nixon for accepting money from rich donors or is it politicians who are rich in their own right? Nixon insists that it is the latter. The fund was necessary because, unlike others in Washington, D.C. and in the presidential race, he was not rich. Nixon repeated again and again that those without wealth could find politics very difficult, a status quo he did not support. This frames the fund as a necessity and a means of leveling the political playing field rather than an ethical violation.

Personal Disclosure

One of the striking features of the Checkers Speech is the level of personal disclosure Nixon used to frame himself as an average American. He laid out the financials of his family in significant detail, including his salary as a senator and the costs associated with running for or holding public office. He insisted that the fund was used only for these costs because of his inability to pay them out of pocket. Even the set for the speech, which was designed to look like an average living room, was meant to connect him to the viewer. This was intended to make the viewer feel Nixon was more like an average man than a member of Washington's elite. As he said, "We lived rather modestly. For four years we lived in an apartment in Parkfairfax, in Alexandria, Virginia. The rent was $80 a month. And we saved for the time that we could buy a house. Now, that was what we took in. What did we do with this money? What do we have today to show for it? This will surprise you, because it is so little, I suppose, as standards generally go, of people in public life."

Today a candidate's personality and charisma are equally as important as policy in a campaign. That is not necessarily new; President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR, 1882 - 1945) used his fireside chats on the radio as a means to connect with the public beyond the confines of more formal addresses. Yet the Checkers Speech is an example of the gradual shift in the 20th century away from a focus on policy and toward a more substantial focus on personality in politics. Nixon's speech is an example of this. Although he uses a lot of personal anecdotes and charming asides about his family, he does not say much about policy at all. He accuses his opponents of being untrustworthy or soft on communism, but he gives no indication about what he and his running mate Dwight Eisenhower might do in regard to both concerns. The speech was ultimately focused on making Nixon seem trustworthy and likeable, not about making policy stances or clearing up misconceptions about the political landscape. In addition, it was extremely successful and, as such, has been used as a touchstone for campaigning based on personal charm and appeal rather than policy proposals.

In the early 1950s television was just becoming a force in everyday life. Most families had recently bought their first television, and programming was developing as people came to understand the format. However, politics, which had adapted to radio under FDR, had not fully caught up with the public. Nixon, however, understood the visual medium as a way to appeal to voters in a new way, and so with the Checkers Speech, he broke new ground by using television to talk directly to the American public. The optics of the speech, including a young Richard Nixon talking on a set that looked like the average American living room, was critical to his message that he was just like the regular viewer. The success of the speech was also a turning point, making clear that television was the future of campaigning. It was also a lesson Nixon both championed and suffered from. Although he broke new ground in 1952, his own first presidential campaign in 1960 was thwarted in part by John F. Kennedy's (1917-1963) performance in the first televised debate.

Aftermath and Legacy

Although Nixon was unsure if his speech was a success, Eisenhower and the public threw their support behind him. On November 4, six weeks after Nixon delivered his speech, he and Eisenhower were elected by a wide margin, carrying 39 states in the Electoral College and seven million more votes than the Democratic ticket. Nixon served as Eisenhower's vice president until Eisenhower left office in 1961. Although Nixon ran against John F. Kennedy in 1960, he lost the presidency by a narrow margin.

Eight years later, Nixon was elected president in the 1968 election, once again carrying the Electoral College by a large margin but securing the popular vote by a far smaller margin than Eisenhower did in 1952. Nixon was reelected in 1972 in a landslide victory, carrying more than 60 percent of the popular vote.

Nixon's second term was soon shaken by the Watergate scandal, which was broken by Washington Post journalists Carl Bernstein (b. 1944) and Bob Woodward (b. 1943) in June 1972. The scandal included wiretapping, an attempted break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, improper use of his presidential powers, accepting gifts, and tax-related issues, among other allegations. In late 1973, Nixon appeared on television for a question-and-answer session and delivered the now famous quote, "People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook. I've earned everything I've got," echoing parts of the Checkers Speech.

President Nixon resigned from office on August 9, 1974, under pressure from his advisors who felt impeachment was inevitable. His vice president Gerald Ford (1913–2006) was sworn in and on September 8 pardoned Nixon of all crimes.

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