What Nixon Wrought With the Checkers Speech ... And What Romney Can Learn


Kevin Mattson is Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University and author of "Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the “Rocking, Socking” Election of 1952."

Credit: Flickr/HNN staff.

This coming Sunday marks the sixtieth anniversary of a crucial event in American politics -- the infamous “Checkers speech” of one Richard Nixon. The man behind that speech is getting a lot of attention right now, what with Mitt Romney’s comment about the 47 percent of Americans who won’t vote for him being traced back to a campaign ad Nixon ran against George McGovern. Numerous commentators link Mitt Romney’s stiffness and “opaqueness” to Nixon's. But I’d suggest we push back to 1952, where we can see that Richard Nixon had a political genius that highlights just what Romney lacks. The Checkers speech reminds us of the two-sided nature of what ensures conservative political victory.

During the primary campaign of 1952, the far right of the Republican Party -- represented by Senator Robert Taft’s candidacy -- had lost to Dwight Eisenhower, a World War II hero who brimmed with a grin but seemed vague on numerous issues dear to conservatives’ hearts. Picking Nixon, who was still shy of his fortieth birthday, pleased the far right, who believed him a tougher Cold Warrior and a man who hated the New Deal in his guts. Senator Joseph McCarthy, a crucial figure among Republican Party leaders at the time, was asked about the Ike-Nixon ticket and quipped, “I think Dick Nixon will make a fine vice president.” No mention of Ike, who just went on grinning and winning votes while Nixon attacked.

Both McCarthy and Nixon loved rough campaigning -- what Nixon called a “rocking, socking” style, akin to a boxing match where you brought your opponent to the ropes. Style mattered to him. He promised never to succumb to the temptation of playing out a “nicey-nice powder puff duel,” as he promised his campaign workers soon after winning nomination. So Nixon didn’t just attack Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois and Democratic presidential candidate, he trashed his opponent’s patriotic bona fides and made him appear a traitor. Nixon called for a more aggressive foreign policy to roll back communism during the Cold War, accusing Stevenson of embracing a “policy of appeasement.” Stevenson was too “fey” and “wisecracking,” too humorous and ironic to hold the office of presidency (the fact that the governor from Illinois was divorced and never remarried was something Nixon’s campaign workers contrasted with their boss’s stable marriage to Pat). Nixon believed the presidency should be owned by a “real man,” words he used to describe his own boss Ike. His rhetoric matched his vision of aggressive take-down and parroted the “fighting” style of Joseph McCarthy.

Then came the big moment, in the form of a crisis and self-definition. Richard Nixon was caught with his pants down: It seemed that some wealthy donors had given to a private fund that helped Nixon’s campaign. The donors had interests in real estate, oil, and banking; they hated the New Deal and government regulation. It looked like Richard Nixon might be a stooge of wealthy financiers. Panic hit the Eisenhower-Nixon campaign; talk was heard of Nixon getting canned. But miraculously Nixon turned bad news to good. On September 23, 1952, he went on television -- an invention starting to spread its tentacles throughout American society at the time -- and changed the narrative: The money wasn’t the issue, the issue was that he was an authentic true American, just an average guy who had a cute dog named Checkers, two kids, and a wife who wore a “respectable Republican cloth coat.” He reached out to the “hearts” of Americans and proved he could connect to the average viewer, something that didn’t come easy to a man who was never very comfortable in his own skin. His voice quavered as he emoted his ordinariness. Nixon garnered a huge pile of telegrams and letters expressing that America had taken “Dick Nixon to its heart,” as Ike put it in a follow-up speech.

The move Nixon made to save his career turned out to be pure political genius – an amazing combination of the tough and the sweet. And it wrote a script for future conservative ascendancy in American politics. Ronald Reagan mastered it when he condemned Jimmy Carter as weak and wallowing in malaise, as not believing in America’s greatness, while simultaneously honing his warm and sunny persona. George W. Bush followed suit by downplaying his wealthy background and appearing simple and likable, the sort of guy Americans wanted to have a beer with. And now, Mitt Romney… Well, he’s got one-half of it down. He channels his inner-Nixon when he complains that President Obama went on an “apology” tour (his own campaign book was titled No Apology: Believe in America). You hear his inner Nixon in his “birther” jokes (“no one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate”). And you heard it when he suggests that Obama made excuses for the Egyptian protesters who stormed our embassy in Cairo.

But Romney needs his Checkers moment right now. He hasn’t passed the “likability” quotient, and he’s still seen as stiff and rich, as a man who has written off nearly fifty percent of all Americans. If Richard Nixon could speak from his grave, he’d tell Mitt: You’re still half way there. Keep up that “rocking, socking” stuff but find a way to connect. Go on television and have your voice quaver as you talk about your dog and your wife’s coat. Run hard but conjure tears out of Americans’ hearts. Nixon would say all of this, because he knew so well what it took to win. You can’t get there with just one half of the strategy.

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