Richard M. Nixon's "Checkers Speech" became a satirical cornucopia, considering its Horatio Alger schmaltz, Pat Nixon's "respectable Republican cloth coat," the cocker spaniel for which it was named. Fifty years later, though, this landmark in Jurassic television emerges in a different light.
Amazing what can happen after a few decades of TV's way with the world in general, presidential politics in particular. When young U.S. Senator from California and Republican vice presidential candidate Nixon faced the cameras in that 30-minute national broadcast on Sept. 23, 1952, the country was populated with about a tenth as many televisions and TV stations as it is today.
If it hardly seems worth mentioning that everything has changed technically, "Checkers" makes news for the currency of its sentiments, the weird freshness of its approach. Sure, the broadcast is the TV production equivalent of a butter churn, but something else is going on there. Darn if Nixon didn't win his day and forecast our own.
That night he had merely to salvage his future as Dwight D. Eisenhower's running mate. Nixon had been on thin ice since Sept. 18, when the story broke that he was drawing money for political expenses -- mailings, traveling and such -- from an $18,235 fund established for him by some California business people.
With the GOP making a big issue of corruption in the Democratic administration, the suggestion of improper conduct caused a tumult. "Dump Nixon" editorials ran in about two of every three major papers, including the New York Herald Tribune, widely considered a GOP house organ. Even the revelation that Democratic presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson had a similar expense fund didn't quell the storm, as Eisenhower waffled for days about Nixon's fate.
It was up to Nixon to save himself and he did just that with a performance he always preferred to call "The Fund Speech." Who could blame him? To do otherwise would be to acknowledge the breathtaking swiftness with which the speech became a national joke. Its rich revelatory texture, its populist narrative, its earnest flag-waving and persuasive verve were reduced to one detail about a dog.
The speech would remain a more popular subject among Nixon's antagonists than among his friends, so much so that it became easy to forget one little point: It was a smash hit. Immediately after, supportive letters and telegrams flooded TV stations and political headquarters. If he had a mind to dump Nixon, Eisenhower found his hand forced by the overwhelming public response.
A plausible argument can be made: If "Checkers" bombs, Nixon's out. Hard to imagine that even the resilient Nixon would have been able to recover his political future from a rejection by the venerated General.
It would not be an issue. If television put Nixon at a disadvantage in 1960, when he ran for president, it kept him alive in 1952, when his campaign paid $75,000 for a prime-time TV slot, right after Milton Berle.
Radio coverage would not be enough, Nixon's campaign aides decided. He had to do TV. It had already been a historic TV year, as the 1952 Democratic and Republican national conventions were the first to be televised nationally that July. The same summer, CBS debuted The Guiding Light. Note the nearly simultaneous televised emergence of national politics and soap opera. It only seems more than a coincidence now.
This is what happens after a few decades of Phil Donahue and Larry King and Barbara Walters and Betty Ford's drinking and Kitty Dukakis' pills and Gary Hart's affairs and Bob Dole's Viagra and Bill Clinton's everything. It's what happens after Michael Dukakis gets beat up in the media for not reacting with explosive emotion to a hypothetical question about his wife being raped. It's what happens when George H.W. Bush loses ground for not emoting sufficiently for the camera when a woman in the studio audience asks if he personally, as president of the United States, has been affected by the recession.
Politics as soap opera
Soap opera and national politics seem only siblings on the tube, where "Suddenly we saw public figures in close-up, in a way we once knew only personal friends," Tom Rosenstiel wrote in Strange Bedfellows. "Eventually, we also wanted to know personal things about them."
The book focused on TV and the 1992 presidential campaign, and it's only gotten more so since. In 1952, Nixon was way ahead of the curve. He showed them. He told personal things.
He stepped onto the stage of El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, his only live audience a camera crew and a few aides. He took a seat behind a desk on a cheesy mockup of a cozy den outfitted with drapes and a bookcase. With his wife, Pat, as mute witness in a stuffed chair beside him, Nixon proceeded to take it all off. Or so it appeared.
He was corny and maudlin and his speaking gestures resembled semaphore training. He kept saying tragically Nixonian things like "Let me point out" and "Now, let me say this." At 39 he already carried the aroma of an old man's resentments.
But when he looked into the camera - all right, sometimes he looked into the wrong one - and told his story, he was onto something. He told about working alongside his four brothers in Dad's humble grocery in California and how little he earned on Capitol Hill and how much he owed and about his pittance of an inheritance. He went through his personal finances figure by figure, effectively turning his pockets inside out: his 1950 car, his life insurance, money he owed his parents.
'Republican cloth coat'
He told how his wife, Pat, didn't own a mink coat, as some of the Democrats in Washington were accused of accepting graft in the form of furs for their wives. Pat wore "a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything."
Nixon had never been accused of granting specific favors for the money, but he presented the fund as evidence of virtue. He argued that the alternative was to charge these expenses to the taxpayers, omitting the fact that these costs could not be subsidized above his Senate allowance. The fund had not made him rich, Nixon argued, sidestepping the question of what expenses he was spared.
No matter. He sold it, throwing in a dose of anti-Communism, and warming the stew with a nice story suitable for any 6 o'clock TV newscast: "One other thing I should probably tell you, because if I don't they will probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift ... ."
A fellow in Texas had heard Pat on the radio say their two daughters would like a dog. Soon the couple received a message: a package was waiting at Union Station in Baltimore. The black-and-white cocker spaniel had traveled in a crate all the way from Texas. Tricia, who was 6, 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 it."
With that, he was only two-thirds through the speech, but it was already history. The "Fund Speech" would be the "Checkers Speech" - some joke. It was a fine piece of TV theater conveying the appearance if not the reality of personal revelation, decades before this became a prevalent political form. What some found embarrassing then would become standard campaign tactics decades later. Phil, Barbara, the Today show crew could hardly have done it better.
Perhaps in this instance Nixon has the last laugh.