What was the "Checkers Speech" and why is it so important?

(Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
(Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Fifty-six years ago yesterday, Republican VP candidate Richard Nixon went on TV to give what's known as the "Checkers Speech." Why does a speech named after a dog live on in our cultural subconscious more than half a century later? Let's find out.

Checkers, the speech

After practicing law and serving in the Navy during World War II, Nixon's political star rose quickly. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and made a name for himself on the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1950, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he continued to rage against Communism.

At the 1952 Republican National Convention, presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower chose Nixon as his running mate. Two months later, the New York Post ran the headline "Secret Rich Men's Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary" above an article claiming that campaign donors were buying influence with Nixon by keeping a secret fund stocked with cash for his personal expenses (some $140,000 in today's dollars). Outrage followed, and many Republicans urged Eisenhower to take Nixon off the ticket.

On September 23, Nixon appeared on national television from the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood to defend himself. He said that the fund did exist, but the money wasn't secret, was strictly for covering campaign expenses, and that no contributor to the campaign fund ever received any special treatment. He produced the results of an independent audit of his finances and proceeded to reveal his financial history, touching on everything from money he made from speaking engagements, to the rent he paid for an apartment in Virginia the four years he was there ($80 a month!), to the $10 check he received from a supporter too young to vote that he promised never to cash.

He then challenged the Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson to also provide a history of his finances to the public and urged the public to contact the Republican National Committee and give their opinion on whether he should remain on the ticket or not.

The speech was a triumph. Nixon gained sympathy from both the public and from the powerful Republicans who had been calling for his head. Eisenhower summoned Nixon to West Virginia and greeted his running mate at the airport with, "Dick, you're my boy." Eisenhower and Nixon defeated the Democrats in November by seven million votes.

Checkers, the dog

There was one campaign donation that Nixon did admit to receiving and keeping for himself. Lou Carrol, a traveling salesman from Texas, had heard Nixon's wife mention during a radio interview how much the Nixon children wanted a dog. So he sent them a black and white spotted American Cocker Spaniel that Nixon's daughter Tricia named Checkers. Nixon admitted that the dog could become an issue, but said he didn't care. His kids loved the dog and no matter what his critics said, they were keeping it.

Checkers died in 1964 and is buried in Wantagh, New York, on Long Island's Bide-A-Wee Pet Cemetery.

The Checkers Legacy

It seems strange that we still remember Tricky Dick disclosing his financial situation in a speech named after a dog that's really only mentioned in passing. But the speech changed the way that politicians and the public interact. Nixon was perhaps one of the first to recognize the power that TV had in shaping a politician's image and the tube helped him in 1952 just as much as it hurt him during his debate with Kennedy in 1960.

The very idea of a politician making his case directly in front of the public—in their own living rooms, no less—was a novel concept at the time. And the combination of the studio set (a faux middle-class den) and Nixon's financial disclosures, which were both entrancing and agonizing to watch, closed the gap between him and the public even more.

The bit about Checkers, which take up less than a minute of airtime, is the clincher. By invoking the name of man's best friend, as cheesy as the speech may sound, Nixon helped give birth to a political landscape where personality is as important as policy, and where a person's vote hinges on which candidate they'd rather have a beer—or sit in a dog park—with.

Here's the speech:

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Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

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Roomba/Amazon

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Video games

Sony

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Microsoft/Amazon

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Apple/Amazon

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Watch: In 1948, Idaho Officials Sent 76 Beavers Parachuting Into Idaho’s Wilderness

A young beaver with all four feet firmly on the ground.
A young beaver with all four feet firmly on the ground.
yrjö jyske, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When people started building up the area around Idaho’s Payette Lake after World War II, its original residents began interfering with irrigation and agricultural endeavors. They weren’t exactly staging an organized protest—they were just beavers doing what beavers do.

Nevertheless, officials at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game decided their best bet was to find a new home for the long-toothed locals. The surrounding wilderness provided plenty of options, but transportation was another issue entirely. Traversing the undeveloped, mountainous terrain would require both trucks and pack animals, and experts knew from past relocation efforts that beavers weren’t fond of either.

“Beavers cannot stand the direct heat of the sun unless they are in water,” department employee Elmo W. Heter explained in a 1950 report [PDF]. “Sometimes they refuse to eat. Older individuals often become dangerously belligerent ... Horses and mules become spooky and quarrelsome when loaded with a struggling, malodorous pair of live beavers.”

To keep Payette Lake’s beavers healthy and happy during the journey, their human handlers would need to find another method of travel. As Boise State Public Radio reports, that’s when Heter suggested making use of their leftover WWII parachutes.

Two beavers would sit inside a wooden box attached to a parachute, which could be dropped from an airplane between 500 and 800 feet above their new home in the Chamberlain Basin. The cables that fastened the box to the parachute would keep it shut during the flight, but they’d slacken enough for the beavers to open the box upon landing. After testing the operation with weights, Heter and his colleagues enlisted an older beaver named Geronimo for a few live trials.

“Poor fellow!” Heter wrote. “You may be sure that ‘Geronimo’ had a priority reservation on the first ship into the hinterland, and that three young females went with him.”

Once Geronimo had certified the safety of the mission, the team began migrating the whole beaver population. During the fall of 1948, a total of 76 beavers touched down in their new territory. It wasn’t without tragedy, though; one beaver fell to his death after a cable broke on his box. Overall, however, the venture was deemed much safer (and less expensive) than any trip on foot would have been. And when department officials checked in on the beavers a year later, they had already started improving their ecosystem.

“Beavers had built dams, constructed houses, stored up food, and were well on their way to producing colonies,” Heter wrote. As Idaho Fish and Game’s Steve Liebenthal told Boise State Public Radio, the area is now part of “the largest protected roadless forest” in the continental U.S.

You can watch the Idaho Fish and Game Commission’s full 14-minute documentary about the process below.

[h/t Boise State Public Radio]