Most people have probably heard a reference to Richard Nixon’s ‘Checkers’ speech.
Just a few days after he had been selected by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 to be the vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, the New York Post ran a sensational article with the headline “Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary.” This allegation of having a lavish personal lifestyle paid for by others outraged many Republicans, and leaders in the party called for his removal and replacement with someone not tainted by gifts from influence peddlers.
Faced with his imminent ouster, Nixon made a bold gamble, going on nationwide TV (not so common in those days) on September 23 with a speech defending himself. With his wife Pat by his side, he said that he had accepted $18,000 from this group but that it had been used to defray political expenses and that none of the money had gone for his personal use nor had he done any favors for the people who had given the money.
He then explained that he was not a rich man, came from a poor family, and described how he and Pat had struggled all their lives. He then went through his family finances in extraordinary detail to show that they were just regular folk, barely making ends meet.
What I am going to do — and incidentally this is unprecedented in the history of American politics — I am going at this time to give to this television and radio audio — audience, a complete financial history, everything I’ve earned, everything I’ve spent, everything I own. And I want you to know the facts.
First of all, we’ve got a house in Washington, which cost $41,000 and on which we owe $20,000. We have a house in Whittier, California which cost $13,000 and on which we owe $3,000. My folks are living there at the present time.
I have just $4,000 in life insurance, plus my GI policy which I have never been able to convert, and which will run out in two years.
I have no life insurance whatever on Pat. I have no life insurance on our two youngsters, Patricia and Julie.
I own a 1950 Oldsmobile car. We have our furniture. We have no stocks and bonds of any type. We have no interest, direct or indirect, in any business. Now that is what we have. What do we owe?
Well, in addition to the mortgages, the $20,000 mortgage on the house in Washington and the $10,000 mortgage on the house in Whittier, I owe $4,000 to the Riggs Bank in Washington D.C. with an interest at 4 percent.
I owe $3,500 to my parents, and the interest on that loan, which I pay regularly, because it is a part of the savings they made through the years they were working so hard–I pay regularly 4 percent interest. And then I have a $500 loan, which I have on my life insurance. Well, that’s about it. That’s what we have. And that’s what we owe. It isn’t very much.
And then came the famous part that is still remembered and gave the speech its name:
I should say this, that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything.
One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they will probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election.
A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?
It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers.
And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.
That speech, though widely mocked now for its bathos, proved to be a political masterstroke and saved Nixon’s career. Eisenhower was impressed and decided to keep him on and the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket went on to win in a landslide. You can see the video of the speech.
I was reminded of the Checkers speech when Sarah Palin spoke recently in response to the news that the Republican party had spent $150,000 to purchase clothes for her and her family from high-end stores like Nieman-Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. This charge of living a lavish life funded by others was seen as seriously damaging to the image that was being created of her as being a simple hockey mom.
In trying to defuse the issue and regain her ‘just regular folks’ image, Palin gave a watered down version of Nixon’s speech in which she said:
Those clothes, they are not my property. Just like the lighting and the staging and everything else that the RNC purchased, I’m not taking them with me. I am back to wearing my own clothes from my favorite consignment shop in Anchorage, Alaska.
Let me tell you a little bit about a couple of accessories, didn’t think that we would be talking about it, but my earrings — I see a Native Americans for Palin poster… These are beaded earrings from Todd’s mom who is a Yupik Eskimo up in Alaska, Native American, Native Alaskan.
And my wedding ring, it’s in Todd’s pocket, ’cause it hurts sometimes when I shake hands and it gets squished…A $35 wedding ring from Hawaii that I bought myself and ’cause I always thought with my ring it’s not what it’s made of, it’s what it represents, and 20 years later, happy to wear it.
The speech was not as well crafted as Nixon’s because Palin does not have the gift for maudlin self-pity that he had. It also did not have the same level of detail, but otherwise was true to the spirit of Checkers. All that was missing was the mention of a puppy.
POST SCRIPT: Palin falls for a prank call
A pair of well-known Canadian pranksters call in to a radio show on which Sarah Palin was featured and, talking in an exaggerated Inspector Clousseau-like French accent, pretend to be the French President Nicolas Sarkozy. She fell for it and hilarity ensues. You can listen to the conversation here.
The Candian Press describes the call in detail in which ‘Sarkozy’
identifies French singer and actor Johnny Hallyday as his special adviser to the U.S., singer Stef Carse as Canada’s prime minister and Quebec comedian and radio host Richard Z. Sirois as the provincial premier. . . . Finally, he mentions a notorious Hustler video titled “Nailin’ Paylin,” describing it as “the documentary they made on your life.”
The mind boggles. How could Palin possibly have thought that the French president would violate all protocol and interfere in the elections of another country and contact an American candidate for the vice-presidency via a radio talk show? Surely it should have been clear to her midway through the interview that the guy was pulling her leg?
At the very end, the caller tells her she has been pranked. One can’t help but feel sorry for her.