Wednesday, September 23, 2009

And a Little Dog Led Him ...

Last month and this month, I wrote a series of posts observing the 35th anniversaries of the resignation of Richard Nixon and the pardon he was given by President Ford.

Those were blockbuster events at the time, and they still hold important places in 20th century American history, but I think it is safe to say that none of those things ever would have happened if not for a speech Nixon gave 57 years ago today — the "Checkers speech."

Nixon, then a 39–year–old senator from California, was chosen to be Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's running mate when the Republicans held their national convention in July 1952.

He was accused of misusing money from a fund that had been set up by his supporters to cover his political expenses, and his future as Eisenhower's running mate was in doubt so Nixon gave a half–hour TV address defending himself and urging viewers to contact the Republican National Committee to express their views on whether he should remain on the ticket.

Television was still a new thing in those days, but roughly 60 million Americans watched, producing a torrent of support for Nixon. Eisenhower kept him on the ticket, and the two were elected by a wide margin in November.

The speech got its name from a black–and–white cocker spaniel the Nixons had been given by a supporter. Nixon insisted his family would keep the dog, "regardless of what they say about it," and they did. Checkers the dog lived another 12 years.

According to the stories I've heard, Nixon was inspired to refer to the dog by Franklin Roosevelt's "Fala speech" from 1944. In that speech — which was given eight years to the day before Nixon's speech — President Roosevelt dismissed Republican claims that he had sent a destroyer to retrieve his dog, Fala, when the dog was left in the Aleutian Islands by mistake.

FDR's speech may have been his inspiration, but Nixon apparently did not like the fact that the speech came to be known as the "Checkers speech," and the dog was popularly credited with saving his career.

In his 1962 book "Six Crises," Nixon called it the "Fund speech" and lamented the fact that the label implied that "the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my political career." But biographer Hal Bochin wrote that Nixon believed his career in national politics would have ended if he hadn't mentioned Checkers.

It's kind of mind–boggling, isn't it? If not for a cocker spaniel, American history could have been altered in unimaginable ways.

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