Playing Checkers or Chess?

Happy Anniversary!!! It was 62 years ago today that Richard Milhous Nixon cemented himself into the national consciousness with his Checkers speech.

Oh, sure, Nixon had been in the news before. He already had a reputation for dirty politics and anti-Communism, linking his opponent in the 1946 campaign to communists. As a Congressman he used his relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, and access to secret FBI files, to push himself as Chair of the Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) investigating the Alger Hiss spy ring. He was even allowed to accompany FBI agents to the Pumpkin Patch, where secret microfilm was discovered inside a hollowed pumpkin. No. Really!

He used this press to catapult himself into the Senate in 1950. And, even that election had its share of dirty mudslinging on Nixon’s part. Running against Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, he accused her of being “pink right down to her underwear.”

Just 14 years after entering national politics Richard Nixon was tapped as Dwight D. Eisenhower running mate in the 1950 election. However, there was a little wrinkle. The Backroom Boys back in California — the ones that had originally pushed for him to run for Congress and later Senator — were quietly supporting him on the QT by topping up his salary.

The press got wind of this slush fund. There was nothing illegal in it, of course, but it gave off a terrible stench. Was there any Quid Pro Quo? Conflict of interest? Nixon was about to be dumped from the ticket. In order to save his political life Nixon went on tee vee to deliver what became known as The Checkers Speech.

It was a cloying speech, watched by more than 60 million people, but it saved Nixon’s ass. The ‘Merkin public sent in telegram after telegram in support of Nixon for Veep. However, Eisenhower kept Nixon dangling on whether he still had the general’s support. Nixon came this close to withdrawing from the ticket, but was urged to hold on. Eventually Eisenhower felt the groundswell of public support and backed Nixon wholeheartedly.

I was only 3 months old when Nixon gave his Checkers speech, yet there are whole passages I can practically recite by heart. Why is it called The Checkers Speech? Because this:

Let me say this: I don’t believe that I ought to quit because I’m not a quitter. And, incidentally, Pat’s not a quitter. After all, her name was Patricia Ryan and she was born on St. Patrick’s Day, and you know the Irish never quit.

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.

IRONY ALERT: Nixon also said, “Let me say this: I don’t believe that I ought to quit because I’m not a quitter. And, incidentally, Pat’s not a quitter. After all, her name was Patricia Ryan and she was born on St. Patrick’s Day, and you know the Irish never quit.” 

What amazes me is everything that came AFTER the Checkers speech. In point form:

• Nixon runs and loses against John Kennedy in 1960′
• Nixon runs for the governorship of California and loses, resulting in “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore speech to the press;
• Everyone counts him out as a political force;
• Wins the 1968 Republican nomination;
• Goes on to win the presidency
• Becomes the first, and so far only, president to resign in disgrace.

You have to admit Nixon’s entire story has the arc of a tragic opera. Yet, had it not been for his success on the Checkers speech, Nixon might have just been a footnote in the history books.

Video created by author from public domain photographs

Further reading: All my writing on Watergate and Nixon can be found HERE.

See how I memorialized the 60th Anniversary in Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech ► Another Magical Tee Vee

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.