Or, “Show me the money!”
It’s been an educational week. Between this oratory byte and the hitherto-unknown exclamation “Great Caesar’s Ghost,” I have realized that I know absolutely nothing about American history, political or pop-cultural. So, as long as I’m back to square one, I thought I’d start it off right!
What’s really weird about uncovering what I would call mid-tier history—events that were big at the time but not often talked about today—is that I don’t know just how uninformed I am. Has most of my generation heard of the Checkers speech? It even entered the vernacular as a phrase for a while, but I hadn’t ever heard the phrase either, or I imagine it would have prompted me to look up the history behind it. So, has none of my generation heard of it? If I asked someone, let’s say, Gen X or younger, mid-conversation, “You know about the Checkers speech?” would I sound egregiously pretentious or totally nonsensical? It makes me uncomfortable that there’s no way to gauge.
(I will refrain from enumerating my issues with the American public education system at this time.)
But on with the story. The year is 1952. A California senator named Richard Nixon, ever heard of him, finds himself on the ballot as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate. Side note: I guess I’m terrible at predicting which state people come from. You’re telling me this guy is from the sunny, laid-back land of the Beach Boys and Randy Newman? No way. Just like McCarthy—Wisconsin? Really? How could a senator from a state nobody cares about create such a mess? (Apologies to my Wisconsin readers.)
Anyway. Dickie gets a campaign staff and accumulates a number of supporters who establish a fund on his behalf. And the gang starts shelling out. Dolla dolla bills y’all. In fact, some of the money seems to just disappear. Imagine the scene in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby is showering Daisy with his shirts, except instead of fabric it’s all legal tender from the U.S. Mint.
Now, plenty of politicians spend through the roof, enabled by financial backing from sources both well-known and anonymous. Unfortunately, Nixon’s entire political career disproves the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad press. After “the Fund,” as it’s known, comes up in passing on a TV appearance, reporters start to ask questions. He claims to know nothing of the particulars, but do they believe him? And there’s plenty of opportunity for them to get on his case about it, because his tour, on the Dick Nixon Special, is making the rounds of the American West.
As the media’s indignation spreads to the public, Eisenhower begins to consider dropping Nixon, and the campaign staff plots damage control. I literally feel as if I am summarizing an episode of a prestige HBO show. In mid-September, they hit upon it: a televised speech laying to rest all fears and rumors of the money having been used improperly. On September 23, in Los Angeles, the plan goes into effect. Nixon sits onstage at the empty El Capitan Theatre (pandemic seating way ahead of its time), his wife Pat nearby, and says thirty minutes of nothing, during which he mentions that the one gift his family received that they intend to keep is a cocker spaniel named Checkers.
It’s a smash. The American people rally behind him. Eisenhower lets him stay on as VP candidate, and in so doing botches the country’s last chance to get rid of Nixon, because he’s back eight years later to run against Kennedy, and eight more years later to actually win the presidency. By which point it should be abundantly clear to all involved that old Dick is a man of many talents, but that leading the free world is not among them, and that he is exceedingly unlucky when it comes to the media, and that the ensuing administration sets him—and with him the ‘world’s’ ‘greatest’ ‘superpower’—up for nothing but failure and disgrace.
Checkers had his work cut out for him with these people.
Hindsight is 20-20. I’m aware of that. But I can’t help thinking it must have been obvious even then that all this could have been avoided. Here is what should have happened:
Nixon gives the speech. The people love it. Eisenhower acknowledges the skill and tact and planning necessary to pull off something like that. However, they strike a deal for Nixon to resign—and then they stage it. In a moment of theatricality, old Ike declares, “Well, Dick, you may have proven yourself a modern-day Pericles, but it’s too little, too late!” and gives his running mate the boot. The people are galled. Nixon continues his tour, and they turn out in droves to see him, demonstrating as only the masses can that they’re on his side after the terrible injustice he has suffered at the hands of the ruthless electoral machine. He then announces his departure from politics and smoothly transitions into show business. By the end of this same tour, he plays the piano (however badly), delivers standup routines (mostly politics-themed), and brings out famous friends like Sammy Davis, Jr. for endearing double acts. After that, he’s credited with singlehandedly reviving vaudeville. There’s a one-night-only engagement at the Apollo (sold out, recorded for RCA), a two-week residence at the Sands (so successful it becomes a recurring stint every few months). He’s bigger than Sinatra! Speaking of, he even helps Sinatra’s career get its second wind after he signs with Capitol. The man’s recording again, he’s doing movies, and what else? He becomes a fixture in his new buddy Dick’s road show. They do a series of TV specials called Albert & Milhous. And best of all, Sinatra never has to meet Spiro Agnew.
Now, doesn’t that sound like a much happier version of events for everyone? They used to say history was written by the winners, but anymore it could even just be written by the people with a writing routine. (I love inventing history. I think I’ll do more of it.) Reading about the Checkers speech was a wild research experience, but it was kind of a downer to connect it to everything that came after. Context matters, kids.
We did get a lot of great pop culture out of Nixon’s antics, though. Seriously, how has a movie of this formative moment not been made yet?
Image: the menu on the “Dick Nixon Special”