This week’s entry: The Checkers speech
What it’s about: During his acceptance speech on election night 2008, Barack Obama charmed the nation when he promised to buy the soon-to-be first daughters a puppy. But he isn’t the first president to charm the electorate with a family dog. In 1952, accused of misuse of campaign gifts, vice-presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Richard Nixon took to the airwaves to defend his actions, singling out one gift—a dog his kids named Checkers. The public embraced the embattled candidate, and he and running mate Dwight D. Eisenhower swept to victory a few weeks later. And that was the last time anyone would have reason not to trust Richard Nixon.
Biggest controversy: When he was elected to the Senate in 1950, Nixon took the then-unusual tactic of running a year-round campaign, despite his re-election bid being six years away. His senatorial travel budget only covered one round-trip ticket to D.C. a year, so a fund was set up for Nixon’s supporters to bankroll his campaign expenses. The campaign claimed the senator himself had no knowledge of who had contributed, but at the same time, its fundraising letters promised Nixon “will of course be very appreciative.”
Then as now, using large sums of money to wield questionable influence over an elected official was perfectly legal, but it was a bad look for someone who had campaigned on cleaning up corruption in Washington, and newspaper articles claimed the senator was living large on a “secret rich men’s trust fund.” Nixon, already completely on-brand, attacked those who questioned his use of campaign funds as “crooks and communists.”
Thing we were happiest to learn: There was a time when transparency regarding a candidate’s finances wasn’t too much to ask. Nixon responded to the allegations head-on, describing in detail what the fund was for and where the money went. He pointed out that wealthy senators could hire additional staff out of their own pockets, but that he was a man of modest means. Some senators hired their spouses to get a second source of income from the taxpayers; he did not. Nixon went into detail about his hardscrabble upbringing, and the small income he and his wife started out on. He even detailed the amounts owed on their mortgage and car loan, concluding that, “Every dime that we’ve got is honestly ours.” He ended by saying he did get a gift from a Texan who heard that the Nixon children wanted a dog; the man promptly sent a cocker spaniel to the family. Nixon said the kids loved the dog and that “regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” In the course of one speech, Nixon went from a slimy politician pocketing funds to a hardworking family man just trying to get by. Few politicians have been so humanized so effectively, so quickly.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Pizzagate was far from the first completely fictional political scandal. Nixon modeled the Checkers speech on the Fala speech, given eight years earlier by then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt. Despite 1944’s lack of Facebook or forwarded emails from older relatives, Republicans still managed to latch onto a completely fictional story, in which FDR’s Scottie dog, Fala, was accidentally left on an Aleutian island, and a Navy destroyer was sent to retrieve him at a cost to taxpayers that got more outrageous with each retelling. Of course, no such thing had happened, so on the advice of Orson Welles, FDR responded by making light of the accusations, saying, “I don’t resent attacks, and my family don’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them… his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since.”
Also noteworthy: Perhaps unsurprisingly, not everyone’s mind was changed by the speech. While even some of Nixon’s political opponents applauded his candor, others derided the speech as shameless political theater, and pointed out that in all the talk about his personal finances and the family dog, he largely dodged “the underlying question of propriety.” The New York Journal American called the speech “simply magnificent,” while the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it “a carefully contrived soap opera.” Legendary political reporter Walter Lippmann called it “the most demeaning experience my country has ever had to bear.” In fairness, he didn’t live long enough to see Sarah Palin run.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: In order to air the Checkers speech, the Republication National Committee raised $75,000 to buy airtime on NBC, right after Milton Berle, as well as CBS’s radio network. Committee members chose not to use NBC’s studios, however, as the lighting was better at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theater. The theater has a storied history in radio and television, having been the home of My Favorite Husband (a Lucille Ball comedy whose theme song was an ad for Jell-O; it was later reworked for television as I Love Lucy), The Lawrence Welk Show (ask any easy-listening-loving grandparents who might still be with us), This Is Your Life, The Jerry Lewis Show, The Hollywood Palace, and the final performance by the Ramones.
Further down the Wormhole: Nixon’s lead-in, Milton Berle, was a giant of the small screen in the medium’s early days, earning the nickname “Mr. Television” for a show so popular that fewer movie tickets were sold the nights it aired. But, although he worked clean through his long career, he was also a womanizer, infamous for what was allegedly “the biggest schlong in Hollywood.” Penis size (link obviously NSFW) has been a subject of fascination for both people with and without them (as evidenced by the Turin Erotic Papyrus, an erotic ancient Egyptian drawing that’s an interesting side link, but <ahem> not quite long enough for us to devote a whole column to). Sometimes that fascination can turn to fear, as in the case of koro, a strange psychological disorder in which the sufferer believes their penis is shrinking and will eventually disappear, despite any lack of evidence. We’ll take a very short look next week.