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Entertainment Arts

The dog who rescued Richard Nixon

She taught music. He was a traveling salesman. They never gained much fame. But, with help from their cocker spaniel Boots, they may have changed the course of history.

Had Beatrice Carrol not been hired to teach piano at a women's college in Texas, had Lou Carrol not picked up a newspaper to read during another lonely dinner on the road, had Boots not been paired up with a stud named Ace and given birth to a litter of black and white cockers two months before the Republican National Convention in 1952, Richard Nixon -- it could be argued -- might never have been president.It was the Carrols who -- back when TVs were black and white and Communists were "Reds" -- gave the Nixon family the puppy they would name Checkers.

And it was Checkers who provided the sentimental hook in a speech that helped the then-U.S. senator from California secure his role as Dwight Eisenhower's vice presidential running mate.

Nixon's "Fund Speech," better known as his Checkers speech -- given 50 years ago tomorrow -- was historic on several levels. It was the first time a politician, bypassing news organizations, made a direct appeal to the public on television. The speech was watched by the largest audience TV had ever amassed. And, most historians now agree, it resulted in Eisenhower turning around a decision -- all but made, Nixon found out shortly before going on the air -- to remove him from the ticket.

But like so much else when it comes to the man who would later serve as the nation's 37th president, the Checkers story is full of contradictions.

Nixon barely knew the dog when he gave the speech. He implied she was a surprise when, in fact, his staff had known about the planned gift for more than a month. And, in the speech, he both got her gender wrong and incorrectly stated where she had been picked up.

Those discrepancies -- granted, not as alarming as an 18 1/2 -minute gap on a White House tape recording -- never got the kind of scrutiny that Nixon would in 1974, when the Watergate scandal and investigation led to his resignation as president.

For Lou Carrol, "that whole Watergate mess" made for some uncomfortable times, as well. While he had remained in relative obscurity, while he had never boasted about his gift to Nixon, he became, after that, hesitant to mention it at all.

To this day, few know he is the "man down in Texas" Nixon referred to in the speech. Other than appearing on two TV quiz shows in the 1950s -- I've Got a Secret and What's My Line? -- Carrol never received much publicity. "Nor," he says, "was I seeking it.

"It was just one of those things you do spontaneously. There's a joy in doing that kind of thing," he said. "Every time I'd see those children -- those pictures of them and the dog and how happy they looked -- it put a smile on my face."

They were newlyweds when they moved to Texas in 1950, both recent graduates of Indiana University, she with a master's in music and piano, he with a business degree.

When she got offered her first job -- teaching piano at what's now known as the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas -- he lined up a sales job that would allow him to be based there, as district manager for J.I. Holcomb, an Indianapolis-based company that sold chairs, desks and school supplies.

Beatrice Colbert had grown up in Washington, Ind., where her father managed an auto parts store. Louis Carrol -- his name originally was Kara-voulias -- was the son of Greek immigrants who settled in Massachussets.

Belton, a small town about 60 miles north of Austin, seemed almost foreign. "I had never experienced Southern Baptists," said Beatrice Carrol, recalling that students at the school weren't allowed to swim or dance in mixed company.

After arriving in Belton, the Carrols decided to get a dog, partly because Louis was frequently on the road. He wanted a good watchdog. She wanted a cocker spaniel. Boots turned out to be both.

A little more than a year later, they took Boots to a breeder. She gave birth, that June, to a litter -- Bea says eight puppies, Lou says nine. That summer, Beatrice, pregnant with their first son, cared for the pups while Louis was making sales trips.

On one such trip that July, Lou was in Tyler, Texas, when he picked up a newspaper and read an interview with Pat Nixon, whose husband had earlier that month been chosen as Eisenhower's running mate. In the interview, Pat was quoted as saying she wanted to get a dog for their two young daughters, Tricia and Julie.

For Louis Carrol, a Republican and fan of the young Communist-fighting senator, the inspiration was instantaneous.

"Back in those days they still had Western Union," he recalls. "So I marched on over to Western Union and wrote a telegram. ..."

" 'On behalf of the great state of Texas, I wish to offer the Nixons a cocker spaniel puppy, purebred and registered,' " Carrol said, remembering how his message began.

"And I sent it on its way to Richard Nixon in the Senate."

It was dated July 22, 1952.

"I liked something about him," Carrol says. "Our country was having its problems. He came across as sincere. And he was fighting Communism, which back in those days was a popular cause."

When he got back home, he told his wife -- and independent voter -- what he had done. "My reaction was disbelief, just absolute disbelief," she says.

About a week later, they received a letter from Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, who would become famous more than two decades later for erasing -- accidentally, she said -- crucial portions of the Watergate tapes.

"Dear Mr. Carrol," reads the letter, dated July 26 and now framed and hanging on Carrol's wall. "Senator Nixon was leaving Washington today and asked me to acknowledge and thank you for your ... offering to send down a cocker spaniel puppy. The senator had been planning to buy a puppy for the little girls and they were particularly fond of cocker spaniels. I know therefore they will be delighted to receive this puppy."

She asked Carrol to have the puppy delivered after Sept. 1, when the Nixons would be back in Washington.

Later that summer, Louis Carrol lined up a new job, and the couple decided to leave Texas. He says he shipped the puppies that remained by train to Beatrice's family in Indiana, dropped Beatrice there by car and then went east to train for his new job.

In Washington, Ind., Beatrice's father built a wooden crate to ship Checkers the rest of the way, secured an "Indiana State Livestock Sanitary Board Health Certificate," and on Sept. 4, took her to the train station for the trip east.

The trouble began on Sept. 18, 1952, while Nixon was on a whistle-stop train trip, chugging his way from Pomona to Portland.

On that day, newspapers around the country carried a story alleging Nixon was making personal use of an $18,000 fund established for office and campaign expenses. "Secret Nixon Fund!" read the headline in the New York Post, "Secret Rich Men's Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary."

The charge was all the more embarrassing because Eisenhower and Nixon were campaigning to clean up corruption in the Truman administration. With just six weeks remaining until the election, most of Eisenhower's advisers wanted Nixon off the ticket. Newspaper editorials urged the same.

Nixon, with advice from a consultant, decided TV was his only chance -- going not to the news media, but around it. "My only hope to win," he later wrote in Six Crises, "rested with millions of people I would never meet, sitting in groups of two or three or four in their living rooms, watching and listening to me on television."

With the Republican National Committee and other campaign committees footing the $75,000 bill -- more than four times the amount of the fund -- a half-hour of time was purchased and plans were made to broadcast the speech from NBC's El Capitan Theater in Los Angeles.

Flying from Portland to Los Angeles, Nixon took some postcards from the seat pouch in front of him and began putting down his thoughts. "I remembered the Truman scandal concerning a $9,000 mink coat given to a White House secretary, and I made a note that Pat had no mink -- just a cloth coat," Nixon would later write in RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon.

"I also thought about the stunning success FDR had in his speech during the 1944 campaign when he had ridiculed his critics by saying they were even attacking his little dog Fala ... (Republicans alleged Franklin Roosevelt, on a trip to the Aleutian Islands, had sent a destroyer to pick up the dog.) I knew it would infuriate my critics if I could turn this particular table on them."

He made a note to mention that they had received a gift -- Checkers -- and that they planned to keep the dog.

Nixon worked on the speech late into the night. On Sept. 23, an hour before he was to leave for the theater, he received a call from Thomas E. Dewey, former presidential candidate and Eisenhower confidant. Dewey said that Eisenhower's top advisers wanted him to submit his resignation at the end of the speech. Then he asked Nixon what he planned to do.

Nixon -- "barely controlling" his temper, he wrote in Memoirs -- slammed the telephone down, but not before saying this: "Just tell them that I haven't the slightest idea what I am going to do, and if they want to find out they'd better listen to the broadcast. And tell them I do know something about politics, too."

In the studio, Nixon received a three-minute warning before going on air, turned to Pat and, his voice breaking, said, "I just don't think I can go through with this one."

"Of course you can," Pat answered, taking his hand and walking him to the stage, which resembled a stark living room -- with an armchair for Pat and a bookcase containing wooden books with painted-on titles.

He talked about the charges, described his meager beginnings and his military service. He outlined his financial worth -- his mortgages, his $15,000 salary, his 1950 Oldsmobile -- and, armed with a just-completed audit and legal review, assured Americans he had neither violated any laws, nor profited personally from the fund.

"I should say this," he added, "that Pat doesn't have a mink coat, but she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything."

Then came the real kicker.

There was "one other thing," he said. The Nixons did get a gift from "a man down in Texas" -- a cocker spaniel, and Tricia had named it Checkers.

"And you know the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep him."

Beatrice Carrol watched the speech in Indiana, on her parent's snowy black and white TV, her mouth dropping open when she heard mention of the dog. "It was like, 'What? Oh my goodness!' "

"Let's put it this way: I never had the admiration for him that my ex-husband did. But I did think they were picking on him at the time. He was very clever about bringing the dog into the picture.

"I did admire his intellect," she added, "but he was rather conniving."

Sixty million other Americans watched as well -- a record that remained unbroken until the Nixon-Kennedy debates, eight years later.

When it was over, Nixon felt he had flubbed it -- "I loused it up," he said -- especially the ending. Time had run out while he was still talking.

He left the studio and, slumped in the back of his car, spotted an Irish setter barking on the pavement. "Well," he said to Pat, "we made a hit in the dog world, anyway."

He didn't know it, but humans had eaten it up. The Republican National Committee received 160,000 telegrams and 250,000 letters backing Nixon by a margin of 350 to 1, according to Jonathan Aitken's Nixon, A Life. That night, though, a dejected Nixon, having not heard from Eisenhower, called Rose Mary Woods into his room and dictated his resignation. She typed it, according to Nixon's Memoirs, and showed it to Nixon's political consultant, who read it and ripped it up.

Later that night, an Eisenhower aide called to tell Nixon he needn't worry, and to meet Eisenhower in Wheeling, W.Va.

Eisenhower was there when he landed.

"General, you didn't need to come out to the airport," Nixon said.

"Why not?" Eisenhower said, putting his arm around Nixon. "You're my boy."

The speech was not a hit with pundits, who termed it -- and still do -- corny, maudlin, lachrymose and unctuous.

"Dick Nixon stripped himself naked for all the world to see, and he brought the missus and the kids and the dog and his war record into the act," Scripps-Howard columnist Robert Ruark wrote at the time. Tom Wicker, years later, in his Nixon biography, One of Us, Richard Nixon and the American Dream, called the speech "a sort of comic and demeaning public striptease that cast Nixon forever as a vulgar political trickster who would ... stoop even to exploiting his wife and his children's dog to grub votes." At the same time, he said, it was "an American masterpiece. ... It saved Nixon's place on the ticket, perhaps saved that ticket itself ... and thus echoed far into the future of the nation."

Clearly, the speech played well with the masses -- with what would later be named "the silent majority" -- especially the part about the dog.

That link -- not just the time-honored one between a man and his dog, but the even more heartstring-tugging one between a man's children and their dog -- was something to which the common man could relate. Actually, Nixon, between campaign swings, had barely had time to meet the dog before he made the speech, in which -- based on differing versions of transcripts compiled later -- he refers to Checkers, a female, as either an "it" or a "he."

"Checkers arrived right around the time of his first campaign swing. He's up in New England at the time, comes back and takes off to California. So there's not time really to get acquainted with the dog," said Susan Naulty, archivist at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace. "They bonded later."

The library, which has little information about the Carrols, was unable to explain other discrepancies between the speech and the facts.

For one thing, Nixon made Checkers sound like a surprise that just showed up one day.

"We did get something, a gift, after the election," Nixon said in the speech. "A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day we left before this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. 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 6-year-old, named it Checkers."

In reality, the "man down in Texas" saw Pat Nixon's comment in a newspaper story, and sent the telegram to the Nixons in July. The letter accepting the dog was sent more than a month before she arrived, and other correspondence was exchanged as well.

"We hope our puppy will please the little girls and be of great enjoyment to the whole family," Beatrice Carrol wrote Nixon's office in August, to let them know that Checkers had her shots and would be sent in early September.

Although Nixon said in his speech that "we" picked Checkers up at the train station in Baltimore, the Nixon library says the dog was sent to Washington, and that who picked her up is unknown. It wasn't Mr. or Mrs. Nixon, though. They were on a New England campaign trip that week.

"When Senator Nixon mentioned Baltimore, it was incorrect," Naulty said.

Today, the Carrols, live in different states. After 22 years of marriage, and three children, they divorced in 1971.

Beatrice, 75, lives in Bloomington, Ind., where she's looking for a job, having recently left a receptionist's position at a community mental health center.

Louis is 79, retired, remarried, suffering from Parkinson's disease, and lives in Barrington, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

Their dog, Boots -- Checkers' mom -- lived to be 17. Other puppies in the Checkers litter were sold or given to family members, but the Carrols kept one, and named her Bootsie. Bootsie died at age 18.

Checkers died at age 12 in 1964, and the Nixon family had her buried under a tombstone bearing her name at the Bide A Wee Pet Cemetery in Wantagh, Long Island.

Last year, in an interview on Larry King Live, Julie Nixon Eisenhower said she would like to have Checkers moved next to the Nixons' gravesites, on the grounds of the library in Yorba Linda. Library officials, however, weren't aware of that plan being pursued.

Louis Carrol eventually met Nixon, briefly, in Los Angeles, in 1962. Nixon was running for governor of California, a losing campaign that he closed with another of his famous comments: "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore."

Coming back from that defeat, Nixon was elected president in 1968. He was serving his second term when the Watergate scandal surfaced -- a burglary at the Democratic National Committee in 1972, masterminded by his re-election committee and covered up by Nixon and his assistants.

His resignation, in 1974, was the first by a U.S. president. Nixon died in 1994.

Louis Carrol, meanwhile, worked for Lawson Products for 33 years. He retired in 1996 as an executive vice president of sales.

While his Parkinson's disease affects his speech, he still gets around. This weekend, he is visiting his daughter in Virginia and plans to attend an Orioles game in Baltimore.

Although he has never regretted giving Nixon's family the dog, Louis Carrol says he lost respect for Nixon once his involvement in Watergate became clear. "I was hopeful at first, but I wavered. I was not pleased toward the end.

"I tried, though," he said. "I tried."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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