Turning Point Presentations: Nixon’s “Checkers” speech


During one of my phase-shift transitions between universities and public schools yesterday, I caught a snippet of a commentary that I thought was on Richard Nixon’s 1952 speech that kept him on the ticket with Dwight Eisenhower. Public reaction was reported to be overwhelmingly warm, the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket won the 1952 election, won again in 1956, and Nixon eventually took the presidency for his own in 1968.

Shouldn’t that speech be considered one of the greater presentations of the 20th century, at least? It probably should, especially when we consider what history might have looked like had Nixon left the ticket — no Nixon nomination in 1960 against John Kennedy, no later Nixon presidency, Nixon continuing in the Senate . . . gee, which path is more gloomy?

The Checkers speech does not wear well, I think. Reading it today, I see the origins of smear campaign tactics and diversionary tactics that mar so much of today’s election campaigns and policy discussions.

This all comes up because the transcripts of the famous 1977 interview series newsman/comedian David Frost did with Nixon is the basis for a new play in London, “Frost/Nixon” by Peter Morgan, with Frank Langella playing Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost — a play that is already being made into a movie for Universal Pictures by Academy Award winning director Ron Howard, but after a Broadway run in 2007.

Nixon’s mea culpa answer to Frost on the entirety of the Watergate scandal — “I made so many mistakes” — in the NPR piece voiced by Langella, sounded exactly like Nixon. I mistakenly thought it a recording of the Checkers speech, hearing just a snippet. The Frost/Nixon interviews would probably never have been necessary, had the Checkers speech not been a success. Surely there is a direct line from the Checkers speech to Nixon’s attempt to revive his reputation in the Frost interviews.

Watergate on Broadway, with a movie in the works, should offer good opportunities especially for high school history teachers to bring Watergate to a new generation. Too many people today fail to understand the depth of the damage done to Constitutional institutions in that crisis, and how lucky our nation was to have survived it. There are many lessons there for us in our current Constitutional crisis.

A lesson awaits, also, in the career of David Frost, who crossed from news to comedy and back. Many kids today use comedians as their chief source of political news. We should not be surprised — but let us hope that today’s comedians have as much a sense of public duty as David Frost did in 1977, even while using his public service interview to revive his own career.

Sometimes free markets work spectacularly, don’t they?

4 Responses to Turning Point Presentations: Nixon’s “Checkers” speech

  1. […] “Turning Point presentations:  Nixon’s ‘Checkers’ speech” […]

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  2. bernarda says:

    Here is a speech that does deserve to be remembered. At this site there is both an audio and video recording. The video quality is quite bad, but I have seen better on the net but can’t find them at the moment. Eisenhower’s Farewell Address.

    http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/dwightdeisenhowerfarewell.html

    Besides warning of the military-industrial complex(originally he was going to call it the military-industrial-congressional complex), he warns about government control of scientific research

    Another point made in the speech but rarely noted is,

    “Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

    During the long lane of the history yet to be written, America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect. Such a confederation must be one of equals. The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength. That table, though scarred by many fast frustrations — past frustrations, cannot be abandoned for the certaint agony of disarmament — of the battlefield.”

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  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Helen Gahagan Douglas — she was an opera and Broadway star, the wife of actor Melvyn Douglas. There is a lot of stuff on those campaigns, on all the Nixon campaigns in California.

    But don’t get too depressed about it. Look up the stories about Dick Tuck and the way he tweaked Nixon over the years. Politics without a sense of humor is . . . tyranny.

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  4. onlycrook says:

    Way back in the 1970s, Ms. Magazine had an article about Nixon’s campaign against a candidate in California. He smeared her in that campaign as being a communist. Although smear campaigns obviously work well, I find them exceedingly depressing. I wish that everyone would just tell the truth.

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