The speech now seems quaint at best, humorous at worst. Richard Nixon was baring his finances and using a family dog, Checkers, to paint himself as an Everyman wrongly accused of tainted wealth. For one looking back, the 1952 Checkers speech may seem mawkish, syrupy, and the height of insincerity.
But that perception risks missing the speech's power. That TV address not only saved Nixon's career and vice presidential candidacy, it also launched American politics on a path that still guides it today. Nixon sensed the power of TV to shape a politician's image and how image would shape politics. He also obsessed over the public's perception of him. "And it has to be called an obsession," says David Greenberg, author of Nixon's Shadow—The History of an Image.
Unprecedented talk. That fixation made him a singular force in early television. The 1952 Checkers speech came after press reports, stirred by supporters of a Republican opponent, that Nixon had personally profited from a secret, though legal, political slush fund. Nixon went to a Hollywood theater, where TV admen constructed a faux, middle-class den for him to take his case directly to the American people. The unprecedented spectacle of a potentially disgraced man talking live drew Americans to stores, bars, and the homes of neighbors who had the new tubes.
Viewers heard only a brief discussion of the fund. Nixon instead detailed his meager beginnings and still-tight finances. He owned a 1950 Oldsmobile and two houses with mortgages and made regular payments on a $3,500 loan from his parents, among other debts. The Great Depression was still a fresh wound, and the financial disclosures riveted the nation in a way not understood today, says Thomas Doherty, an American studies professor at Brandeis University. Nobody then talked about his or her bank accounts in public. "His revelations came across as painful, anguishing for everyone watching," Doherty says. People cried as they listened, even in the studio.
Then came the title line about Checkers. A Texas supporter had sent the cocker spaniel weeks earlier after reading that Nixon's daughters wanted a dog. "Regardless of what they say about it, we're going to keep it." After the speech, calls supporting Nixon jammed switchboards.
Today, voters expect to know the inner politician as issues become more complex. "So you look for personal qualities," says Greenberg. By invoking a dog that proved to be his best friend, Nixon sealed that role for television in politics.