Above is a 30-minute YouTube video of a pivotal moment in U.S.–and world–history. It’s the complete recording, beginning to end, of the speech Richard M. Nixon made 61 years ago tonight, on September 23, 1952, and has come to be known as the “Checkers speech.” It really is an amazing piece of American history, and I recommend watching it all instead of the oft-repeated clips and sound bites.
In September 1952 Nixon was riding high. Only 39 years old, he had been chosen as the Vice-Presidential nominee of Dwight D. Eisenhower, World War II hero and the Republican nominee for President, who was expected to sweep the polls in November and end 20 straight years of Democratic rule in the White House. Nixon had already served as a Congressman and Senator, having run tough, vicious campaigns against his opponents, particularly Helen Gahagan Douglas of California. He also crusaded against government corruption, which he accused the Truman administration of.
Then something happened. The press found out that Nixon’s political backers had, for several years, been keeping a secret fund to pay for his political activities. This was not illegal, but it was embarrassing, and it blindsided Eisenhower. There was talk of dumping Nixon from the ticket as a liability. Nixon, however, chose to appeal directly to the voters. In this prime time TV speech–one of the very first by a politician–he laid out his personal finances, proving he didn’t use the fund for personal expenses, and asked the voters to contact the Republican Party and tell them whether they wanted him off the ticket.
The most memorable part of the speech, however, was when Nixon mentioned a gift that a Texas admirer had sent him: a cocker spaniel puppy. Nixon’s daughters had named it Checkers, and he claimed he was going to keep it. This is what gave the speech its name.
The speech was a huge success. The RNC did not want Nixon gone; he stayed on the ticket, Eisenhower won in a landslide and Nixon became the youngest Vice-President in history.
Think for a moment, though, what might have happened if he hadn’t given this speech. If Eisenhower dumped Nixon from the ticket, speculation is that he might have chosen California Senator William Knowland as his replacement running mate. If Knowland had run for President on his own in 1960 (as Nixon eventually did), would he have beaten John F. Kennedy? Even if he couldn’t, Nixon probably wouldn’t have gotten the Republican nomination again in 1968, which meant someone different might have followed Lyndon Johnson in the White House. And we certainly wouldn’t have had the opening to China in 1972, the beginnings of health care reform (yes, believe it or not, Nixon did that), or the Watergate scandal. The whole history of the world in the last 60 years might have been different.
It’s amazing the small hinges on which history sometimes turns.
Incidentally, Checkers the dog never made it to the White House. Sadly, he died in 1964, when Nixon thought he was out of politics.