One of the greatest, and most infamous, examples of the power of storytelling occurred on this date 59 years ago. The world would little remember the details of the speech Richard Nixon delivered on Sept. 23, 1952 –in fact, would consider the campaign finance kerfuffle to be almost charming in contrast to today’s multimillion-dollar campaign binges — were it not for Tricia Nixon’s little dog, Checkers.
Yes, today is the anniversary of the Checkers Speech. It’s appropriate that we mark the occasion, because we’ve been thinking a lot lately about both storytelling and non-apologetic apologies.
Richard Milhouse Nixon was campaigning in 1952 for the vice presidency of the United States as the running mate of Dwight D. Eisenhower. (SPOILER ALERT: They won.) Someone discovered that Republican fat cats had established a secret $18,000 slush fund that “reimbursed” candidate Nixon for campaign expenses. Such slush funds were not uncommon or even illegal at the time, but some people were shocked — shocked! — that Nixon was accepting money and favors from people to whom he might later owe favors.
Nixon could have issued a denial. He could have released campaign finance ledgers. But instead, he held a half-hour live television special to tell his stories.
He started by talking about his modest upbringing in California, helping out at the family store. He talked about serving in World War II. He said he and Pat Nixon had $10,000 in savings — the equivalent of about $120,000 today — all in government treasury bonds. He and Pat didn’t invest in the stock market.
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.
He talked about his two-year-old Oldsmobile, and about taking out loans from his parents, and about his mortgages, and his modestly furnished home in California, where his aging parents now lived.
Well, that’s about it. That’s what we have and that’s what we owe. It isn’t very much but Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we’ve got is honestly ours. I should say this—that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.
Pat Nixon sat in a chair off to the side, gazing adoringly at her husband as he continued:
One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me too, we did get something—a gift—after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on 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’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.
Get the name of the dog! It’s what I teach journalism students today. Get the details: Little girl, Tricia, 6 years old, has been wanting a dog, and here comes a surprise: a cute little black and white cocker spaniel. The kids love the dog. He would never disappoint the kids.
So no, he’s NOT going to apologize for accepting the black and white cocker spaniel that so delights his little girls. He is, in fact, even more determined than ever to keep doing exactly what he was doing before, despite the smears, the “misunderstandings,” because you know, darn it, he Loves His Country.
And as far as this is concerned, I intend to continue the fight. Why do I feel so deeply? Why do I feel that in spite of the smears, the misunderstandings, the necessity for a man to come up here and bare his soul as I have? Why is it necessary for me to continue this fight? And I want to tell you why. Because, you see, I love my country.
One of the television cameramen had tears streaming down his face. Nixon had invited a small crowd of Young Republicans to the television studio, and they cheered. Yet Nixon was convinced he had blown it.
Nixon biographer Stephen (“Undaunted Courage”) Ambrose wrote that the Checkers Speech was “one of the most sickening, disgusting, maudlin performances ever experienced.” But millions of Americans disagreed, flooding the Republican National Committee with telegrams, postcards, letters and phone calls in support. Checkers received truckloads of gifts: bones, ribbons, collars, a year’s worth of dog food. Nixon was hailed as “an honest man” by Mamie Eisenhower.
The slush fund? What slush fund? It was forgotten. Nixon celebrated the anniversary of “the fund speech” for years afterward. He said it saved his career and paved the way to his presidency.
But somewhere along the way he forgot the power of storytelling. Somewhere along the way, the Checkers Speech evolved into the succinct and less successful “I am not a crook.”