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Research Communications

How Richard Nixon’s famous "Checkers" speech set the tone for decades of conservative rhetoric 

By Corinne Colbert 

In his famous “Checkers” speech, Richard Nixon—then a senator from California and Dwight Eisenhower’s troubled running mate in the 1952 presidential election—downplayed his connection to a cabal of extremely wealthy donors. He portrayed himself as a middle-class guy whose wife wore “a respectable Republican cloth coat” and whose primary gift from his supporters was a cocker spaniel puppy named Checkers.

Although the speech is remembered today as a maudlin appeal to popular sensibilities, Nixon’s gambit worked spectacularly well at the time. The largest television viewing audience to date responded with a torrent of letters and telegrams to the GOP urging the party to keep Nixon on the presidential ticket.

The “Checkers” speech also had a lasting political impact, argues historian Kevin Mattson in his new book Just Plain Dick (Bloomsbury USA). Mattson, Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History, says it set the stage for decades of conservative rhetoric critical of elites, even though conservative candidates often come from or are largely backed by the wealthy and well-connected.

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Kevin Mattson. Photo by Ben Siegel.

Although politicians have long sought to make themselves “relatable,” Mattson says, Nixon realized television’s potential as a powerful image-creating tool. Ironically, Nixon was famously uncomfortable with people and not particularly likable. Yet he used television to his advantage, designing a set as an intimate living room to make it seem as if he were speaking from his own home. And viewers of the time, unused to or unaware of the ploy, ate it up.

“(Today) we live in an ironic age, with the notion that everything is staged,” Mattson says. “People then didn’t think about how you can stage authenticity.”

The technique worked: “People felt that Nixon reached their hearts,” Mattson notes. Few complained that Nixon didn’t address the underlying issue: the influence of money on campaigns and, by extension, policy. Nor did they consider the irony of a well-known conservative portraying himself as a man of the people.

“The original populist People’s Party hated railroads, bankers, and big business,” Mattson says. What Nixon did so astonishingly was to echo that distrust of elites, even as he was taking their money. Who could fault a man who praised the virtues of cloth coats and the love of dogs?

To this day, the ability of television to elevate image over issues is a huge factor in politics, Mattson says. “I don’t think politics is about having a rational debate,” he says. “We need to be aware that our politics operates on an emotional basis.”

He points to George W. Bush as an example. A scion of wealth—his great-grandfather was a rail tycoon tied to the Rockefellers and Harrimans—“W” was famously embraced by the public as an ordinary Joe they’d like to drink a beer with. Bush reinforced that image with frequent photos of himself clearing brush at his Texas ranch.

Mattson, for one, would like to see more honesty in politics.

“You can talk in a way that you connect with people, explain policy without talking down to people,” he says. “You can push back (against opposition) without denigrating what brought you to enter public life in the first place.”

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, students and staff.