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

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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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Apple/Amazon

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'Jingle Bells' Was Originally Written as a Thanksgiving Song

Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash
Photo by Carolyn V on Unsplash

Thanksgiving has got nothing on Christmas when it comes to songs that are specific to the holiday. Beyond Adam Sandler’s “The Thanksgiving Song” and ... "The Thanksgiving Song" remix, there aren't a ton of songs you associate with Turkey Day. Unless you count "Jingle Bells."

Back in 1850 or 1851, James Lord Pierpont was perhaps enjoying a little holiday cheer at the Simpson Tavern in Medford, Massachusetts, when Medford’s famous sleigh races to neighboring Malden Square inspired him to write a tune. The story goes that Pierpont picked out the song on the piano belonging to the owner of the boarding house attached to the tavern because he wanted something to play for Thanksgiving at his Sunday school class in Boston. The resulting song wasn’t just a hit with the kids; adults loved it so much that the lyrics to “One Horse Open Sleigh” were altered slightly and used for Christmas. The song was published in 1857, when Pierpont was working at a Unitarian Church in Savannah, Georgia.

Another bit of trivia for you: Mr. Pierpont was the uncle of banker John Pierpont Morgan, better known as J.P. Morgan. Despite this, and despite the fact that his famous holiday composition should have made him a millionaire, Pierpont struggled to make ends meet. Even after his son renewed the copyright on "Jingle Bells" in 1880, 13 years before his father’s death, it was never enforced enough to produce any real income.

Though lyrics about turkey and the Pilgrims aren’t as abundant as tunes for certain other holidays, they’re out there. Here are a couple:

“Over the River and Through the Wood”

They might as well crown Medford, Massachusetts, the Thanksgiving Capital of the United States, because the song “Over the River and Through the Woods” was born there, too. Lydia Maria Child wrote the poem “A Boy’s Thanksgiving Day” about a trip to her grandfather’s house, which, yes, really does sit near the Mystic River in Medford, Massachusetts. It’s still there today, owned by Tufts University and used as a home for Tufts dignitaries. The poem was later set to music and became the classic we know today.

"Alice’s Restaurant Massacre"

It doesn’t have much to do with Thanksgiving, except that the real-life events that inspired the song took place on Thanksgiving. After dumping some litter illegally on Turkey Day in 1967, Arlo Guthrie was arrested. When he later went to the induction center to find out about his draft status, Guthrie realized that he had been declared ineligible for the draft due to his lack of moral conduct. The song, which is 18+ minutes long, became a huge hit amongst war and draft protesters.

This story has been updated for 2020.