On the 100th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s birth, we look back at the long-forgotten four-legged friend who helped save the future president’s political career in 1952.
Indeed, without Checkers the dog, American history could be missing the famous Kennedy-Nixon debate, the 1968 presidential race, the trips to China and Russia, and Watergate.
Of course, President Nixon was a resourceful, resilient politician who could have bounced back from being dropped from the 1952 presidential ticket by Dwight Eisenhower. However, there are few historical examples of candidates who fell from such a big stage and regained their footing in a national election.
And his career-saving speech could have worked without mentioning his family’s dog, as it had many other elements that used television in an innovative way.
But when the Republican vice presidential nominee appeared before a national live TV and radio audience of 60 million people in September 23, 1952, everything was on the line for Nixon and his political future. And Checkers was a key player.
About 30 minutes later, Nixon had pulled off the first of several political comebacks in what became known as the “Checkers” speech.
Nixon was facing allegations that he benefited from an $18,000 trust fund set up for a future U.S. Senate campaign. He denied the charges, but Eisenhower, under the advice of his campaign staff, was considering dropping Nixon from the campaign, based on public reaction to the speech.
Nixon’s speech was carefully crafted to take advantage of the new medium of television and the sensitivity of Republican voters, including a full disclosure of his financial history and rhetoric right from Abraham Lincoln’s playbook.
Nixon and his supporters called it the “fund” speech, and they knew their political careers rested on its success.
And then, Nixon tossed in an anecdote about Checkers, the family’s cocker spaniel, to prove he was just another “common man.”
Years later, Nixon acknowledged that he added Checkers almost as an inside joke, since President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his famous “Fala” speech eight years to the day Nixon gave his speech.
Roosevelt’s use of his own dog in a 1944 national address angered Republicans for years, because it helped turn a close race between Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey toward the Democrats.
“I got a kind of malicious pleasure out of it. I’ll needle them on this one, I said to myself,” Nixon told an interviewer later in the 1950s.
The Checkers anecdote clinched the deal.
“A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog,” Nixon explained about a campaign gift from a supporter from Texas, which came in the form of a cocker spaniel.
“Our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
The public support for Nixon among GOP voters was overwhelming, and Nixon stayed on the ticket and was elected vice president.
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Eisenhower’s wife, Mamie, was in tears after the speech and reportedly told her husband that any man who loves dogs has to be honest.
Checkers, in his own way, became a celebrity. But Nixon disliked the term “Checkers speech because he thought it diminished his skills as a politician.
In a later book, he complained that the press and his opponents called the event the “Checkers” speech and insinuated that Nixon needed his dog to save his candidacy.
“As though,” he said in 1962, “the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my career.” Nixon loved the speech on its own as the “fund” speech and asked his future speech writers to review it as mandatory reading.
Checkers didn’t live to see Nixon become president in 1969. He passed away in 1964 at the age of 13, and his grave is on Long Island at Bideawee Pet Memorial Park in Wantagh.
Visitors leave flags and flowers at the gravesite as a tribute to the dog who helped Nixon, in an indirect way, become vice president.