Today is the anniversary of Richard Nixon's 'Checkers' speech, a long mea not really culpa about accepting illegal campaign contributions.
Nixon at the time — Sept. 23, 1952 — was Dwight Eisenhower's vice presidential pick, and controversy about accepting $18,000 threatened to get him booted off the ticket.
The speech, delivered in Hollywood, is long, rambling — and very good. It's a down-home defense that shows how taking an anti-elitist stance can wash away a multitude of sins and helps explain, even 56 years later, how campaigning with style can trump campaigning with substance.
It starts with Nixon admitting flat out that he was wrong — and then in exhaustive detail showing how extenuating circumstances prove he wasn't and that, by the way, his opponents are aristocrats and we all know what that means.
I have a theory, too, that the best and only answer to a smear or to an honest misunderstanding of the facts is to tell the truth. And that's why I am here tonight. I want to tell you my side of the case. I'm sure that you have read the charge, and you've heard it, that I, Senator Nixon, took $18,000 from a group of my supporters.
Now, was that wrong? And let me say that it was wrong. I am saying it, incidentally, that it was wrong, just not illegal, because it isn't a question of whether it was legal or illegal, that isn't enough. The question is, was it morally wrong? I say that it was morally wrong — if any of that $18,000 went to Senator Nixon, for my personal use. I say that it was morally wrong if it was secretly given, and secretly handled. And I say that it was morally wrong if any of the contributors got special favors for the contributions that they made.
The candidate asks if any of the money went to his personal use or if the contributors received a quid pro quo.
Every penny of it was used to pay for political expenses that I did not think should be charged to the taxpayers of the United States.
Let me point out — and I want to make this particularly clear — that no contributor to this fund, no contributor to any of my campaigns, has ever received any consideration that he would not have received as an ordinary constituent.
Nixon uses the speech to review his own life of penury leavened by public servitude (not service, but servitude). He reviews his own modest means, his wife's "respectable Republican cloth coat" and their two homes (candidates knew how many they owned back then) with attached mortgages and interest rates.
In the end, Nixon cops to accepting a single personal gift — a flop-eared pooch that a supporter sent him and which his young daughters fell in love with. Nixon, the guilty party, tells America he's not giving up that dog — "I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it" — and thereby transforms himself from the accused to the upright citizen. It's like a form of Stockholm syndrome with the captives glued to their TV screens.
Rather than end the speech there, as a salt-of-the-earth, dog-lovin' guy, Nixon goes on the attack, first assailing the Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, for being rich ("I believe that it's fine that a man like Governor Stevenson, who inherited a fortune from his father, can run for President."); then for having a Vice Presidential candidate, John Sparkman, who put his wife on his Senate payroll ("I have found that there are so many deserving stenographers and secretaries in Washington that needed the work that I just didn't feel it was right to put my wife on the pay roll"); and then, triumphantly, for being soft on communism.
Before the speech is over, Nixon has declared that the stories about the payments he received were just "smears," smears he accepts because America is threatened by the Red Menace.
And while he's no quitter — nor, he assured America, was his ethnically Irish wife Pat — the decision to stay on the ticket was not his. Amazingly enough, that night he made sure it wasn't Ike's either.
I am submitting to the Republican National Committee tonight through this television broadcast the decision which it is theirs to make. Let them decide whether my position on the ticket will help or hurt. And I am going to ask you to help them decide. Wire and write the Republican National Committee whether you think I should stay on or whether I should get off. And whatever their decision is, I will abide by it.
Oh, and what about Checkers?
I'll just steal this paragraph from Wikipedia because it sums up the wee doggie's legacy very neatly:
Nixon's dog Checkers died in 1964 and is buried in Wantagh, New York, on Long Island's Bide-A-Wee Pet Cemetery (3300 Beltagh Avenue, Wantagh, NY). Since Nixon never lived on Long Island, and only buried Checkers there because it was convenient, some locals look upon the dog as an unwelcome outsider. Suffolk County Historical Society President Wallace Broege has been quoted as saying, "I think it does Long Island a disservice." That doesn't stop the visitors from coming. And while people still plant small American flags next to the dog's granite tombstone (Plot #5), no one from the former first family has ever visited
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