At a time when political speeches are televised, scrutinised, analysed and criticised, it is worth taking a few minutes to look back on the first-ever US nationally televised address, Nixon’s Checkers speech which, according to the Atlantic, “both saved and scarred young Richard Nixon, opening a new communications era and upending conventional political imagery.”
The Checkers speech was an address made on September 23, 1952, by California Senator Richard Nixon, six weeks before the 1952 United States presidential election, in which he was the Republican candidate for Vice President on General Dwight Eisenhower's Republican national ticket.
Nixon had been accused of improprieties relating to a fund established by his backers to reimburse him for his political expenses. This placed his position as VP candidate in doubt. Nixon flew to Los Angeles and delivered a half-hour television address in which he defended himself, attacked his opponents, and urged the audience to contact the Republican National Committee (RNC) to tell it whether he should remain on the ticket.
Nixon’s address was the first American political speech to be televised live for a national audience and was watched or heard by over 60 million people, the largest audience ever assembled.
Why was it called the Checkers Speech? That will become clear from the excerpts from the speech below.
By the way:
The speech led to an outpouring of public support, with the RNC and other political offices receiving millions of telegrams and phone calls supporting Nixon. Eisenhower won the election and Nixon became Vice President.
The Checkers speech was an early example of a politician using television to appeal directly to the electorate, the term having come more generally to mean any emotional speech by a politician.
Watch the speech by Nixon by clicking on:
The middle passages of the speech lay out his family's financial circumstances in excruciating detail in what has been termed Nixon's "financial striptease: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'm 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 dollars from a group of my supporters.Not one cent of the 18,000 dollars or any other money of that type ever went to me for my personal use. 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.I was born in 1913. Our family was one of modest circumstances, and most of my early life was spent in a store out in East Whittier. It was a grocery store, one of those family enterprises. The only reason we were able to make it go was because my mother and dad had five boys, and we all worked in the store. I worked my way through college, and, to a great extent, through law school. And then in 1940, probably the best thing that ever happened to me happened. I married Pat who's sitting over here. We had a rather difficult time after we were married, like so many of the young couples who may be listening to us. I practiced law. She continued to teach school.Then, in 1942, I went into the service. Let me say that my service record was not a particularly unusual one. I went to the South Pacific. I guess I'm entitled to a couple of battle stars. I got a couple of letters of commendation. But I was just there when the bombs were falling. And then I returned -- returned to the United States, and in 1946, I ran for the Congress. When we came out of the war -- Pat and I -- Pat during the war had worked as a stenographer, and in a bank, and as an economist for a Government agency -- and when we came out, the total of our savings, from both my law practice, her teaching and all the time that I was in the war, the total for that entire period was just a little less than 10,000 dollars. Every cent of that, incidentally, was in Government bonds. Well that's where we start, when I go into politics.Now, what have I earned since I went into politics? Well, here it is. I've jotted it down. Let me read the notes. First of all, I've had my salary as a Congressman and as a Senator. Second, I have received a total in this past six years of 1600 dollars from estates which were in my law firm at the time that I severed my connection with it. And, incidentally, as I said before, I have not engaged in any legal practice and have not accepted any fees from business that came into the firm after I went into politics. I have made an average of approximately 1500 dollars a year from nonpolitical speaking engagements and lectures.And then, fortunately, we've inherited a little money. Pat sold her interest in her father's estate for 3,000 dollars, and I inherited 1500 dollars from my grandfather. We lived rather modestly. For four years we lived in an apartment in Parkfairfax, in Alexandria, Virginia. The rent was 80 dollars 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.First of all, we've got a house in Washington, which cost 41,000 dollars and on which we owe 20,000 dollars. We have a house in Whittier, California which cost 13,000 dollars and on which we owe 3000 dollars. My folks are living there at the present time. I have just 4000 dollars in life insurance, plus my GI policy which I've never been able to convert, and which will run out in two years. I have no life insurance whatever on Pat. I have no life insurance on our two youngsters, Tricia and Julie. I own a 1950 Oldsmobile car. We have our furniture. We have no stocks and bonds of any type. We have no interest of any kind, direct or indirect, in any business. Now, that's what we have. What do we owe?Well in addition to the mortgage, the 20,000 dollar mortgage on the house in Washington, the 10,000 dollar one on the house in Whittier, I owe 4500 dollars to the Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., with interest 4 and 1/2 percent. I owe 3500 dollars to my parents, and the interest on that loan, which I pay regularly, because it's the part of the savings they made through the years they were working so hard -- I pay regularly 4 percent interest. And then I have a 500 dollar loan, which I have on my life insurance.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 she'd look good in anything.One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I 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 six 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.