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Never defend; always attack.

September 23, 2008, 12:29 pm

One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they will probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.

On this day in 1952, Richard Nixon gave the Checkers speech , a landmark in the history of television and politics.  Talking conversationally to the largest audience ever for a political speech, in the style that came to be called Nixonian, he defended himself from charges of corruption by attacking his critics.  In the process, he deftly transformed accusations of bribery into an attempt by nasty liberals to take away his children’s favorite pet.

Nixon saw the speech as a chance to save his spot on the Republican ticket that year.  After General Eisenhower picked the California senator as his running mate, the New York Post ran a story charging that Nixon supplemented his salary with a secret slush fund backed by wealthy businessmen:  SECRET RICH MEN’S TRUST FUND KEEPS NIXON IN STYLE FAR BEYOND HIS SALARY.  The fund was not illegal at the time, but later stories suggested that Senator Nixon might have done legislative favors for the men who contributed to the fund.  Nixon decided to present his side of the story on national television. Fifty-eight million people tuned in to watch.

To liberals, the speech was smarmy, unconvincing, condescending, and downright laughable at times.  There was the awkward reference to his wife’s clothes (“Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything”).  There was Pat herself, perched uncomfortably on a chair next to her husband, looking like she really wished she’d married her other boyfriend.  There was the false humility  (“I went to the South Pacific. I guess I’m entitled to a couple of battle stars. I got a couple of letters of commendation. But I was just there when the bombs were falling”).  And there was that corny part about the dog.

But, as David Greenberg has pointed out, conservatives heard and remembered the speech in a different way.  To them, Nixon was not Uriah Heep but Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith in Washington, a man of the people attacked by snooty liberals because he didn’t belong to their club.  Murray Chotiner, Nixon’s chief strategist from his earliest, nastiest, red-baiting campaigns, was thrilled by the speech.  “Never defend; always attack” was Chotiner’s motto, and Nixon followed his advice with enthusiasm.  After recounting his finances, Nixon went on the offensive.  His enemies would never forgive him for putting Alger Hiss in prison, so they invented these “smears” with one purpose: “to silence me, to make me let up.”  But Dick Nixon was “not a quitter.”  He planned to “campaign up and down America until we drive the crooks and the Communists and those that defend them out of Washington.”  He endured these slings and arrows for one reason: “Because, you see, I love my country. And I think my country is in danger.”  The Democrats weren’t just his enemies; they were the nation’s enemies.

Nixon would have the opportunity to insist “I have never been a quitter” again, in August 1974 as he announced that he was quitting.  The revelation of Tricky Dick’s crimes finally forced him from office, but the politics of division – of “positive polarization,” as Nixon liked to call it – continues to warp our politics today.  As Rick Perlstein says, we live in Nixonland.

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