Checkers. The Nixon family's American Cocker Spaniel who became an icon when the then Senator and Vice Presidential candidate called upon the electorate's sentimentality towards dogs to preserve his candidacy.
Nixon was accused of accepting $18,000 in illegal campaign contributions (the equivalent of about $150,000 in 2008). While Eisenhower was reported to be willing to drop him from the ticket, Nixon appealed to the public by providing an explanation for the contribution and admitting that he and his family did receive a gift, “a little cocker spaniel dog.” He acknowledged this small bit of implicit wrongdoing without exactly justifying it: “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.” While the discussion of Checkers accounts for only 165 words in a speech that ran to almost 4,600, this was the payoff section, so to speak. The televised address to the nation has always been called the “Checkers Speech.” It is considered “a brilliant political maneuver” and ranked as one of the most effective political speeches of the 20th century.
Part of the reason for the appellation was that Nixon provided an echo of President Franklin Roosevelt's less remembered “Fala Speech” during the 1944 campaign. With a similar strategy, FDR challenged false campaign rumors by evoking sympathy for his Scottish Terrier Fala:
These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks—but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or 20 million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since! I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself—such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog.
Reading this, it seems to me that Nixon borrowed a page from the FDR playbook, but with a twist. In his speech, FDR linked the campaign smears to Hitler's strategy of the Big Lie. As the president explained, “you should never use a small falsehood; always a big one, for its very fantastic nature would make it more credible—if only you keep repeating it over and over and over again.” Nixon, who made his name “fighting” communism at home, was certainly familiar with that technique, which was used effectively by his Senate colleague Joseph McCarthy. Nixon told a small truth about Checkers, seeming to admit a minor and forgivable transgression as a distraction from his more serious campaign violations.
You can watch the Checkers Speech on YouTube at http:// www.youtube.com/ watch?v= sqWMI0Ch5cM and listen to the Fala address at http:// www.hpol.org/ fdr/ fala/ falla.ram
1. Wikipedia contributors. 2008. Checkers Speech. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Accessed Jul 23 2008 from http:// en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/ Checkers_speech.
2. Gavin, Philip. 2008. Richard Nixon Checkers Speech. The History Place. Accessed July 23 2008 from http:// www.historyplace.com/ speeches/ nixon-checkers.htm.
4. Roosevelt, Franklin Delano. 1944. The 'Fala' Address. J. Goldman, ed. History and Politics Out Loud. Accessed Jul 23 2008 from http:// www.hpol.org/ fdr/ fala/.