Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech took place 58 years ago today. Garry Wills devotes an outstanding chapter to the speech in Nixon Agonistes. Wills reminds us that just before Nixon was to deliver the speech live on television before a huge national audience, Tom Dewey had telephoned Nixon on behalf of Eisenhower and essentially ordered him to resign as the vice presidential candidate at the conclusion. Dewey: “Can I say you have accepted?” Nixon: “You will have to watch the show to see — and tell them [Eisenhower’s advisers] I know something about politics too!” One measure of the speech’s success is that Eisenhower was compelled to accept Nixon’s insubordination.
Before he gets to the inside story of the speech, Wills sizes the speech up this way:
[Nixon’s] 1952 speech was probably a greater milestone than the presidential debate that came eight years later. Nixon first demonstrated the political uses and impact of television. In one half hour Nixon converted himself from a liability, breathing his last, to one of the few people who could add to Eisenhower’s preternatural appeal — who could gild the lily. For the first time, people saw a living political drama on their TV sets — a man fighting for his whole career and future — and they judged him under that strain. It was an even greater achievement than it seemed. He had only a short time to prepare for it. The show, forced on him [by Eisenhower’s advisers], was meant as a form of political euthanasia. He came into the studio still reeling from distractions and new demoralizing blows….[A]t the time he went onto the TV screen in 1952, he was hunted and alone.
Wills adds drily: “It was also the experience that took the glitter out of politics for Mrs. Nixon.” Wills has much more, all of it worth reading. The Richard Nixon Foundation’s hilariously named New Nixon Blog commemorates the speech today in David Stokes’s “Checkers — the moment politics met television,” complete with a video of the speech.