It’s been more than sixty years since Richard Nixon pulled off one of the most amazing performances in American political history. It was an act that restored his career and led to his tenure as Vice President and, ultimately, to the Presidency of the United States. It was also an event that demonstrated the emotional resonance of the emerging television medium. And, regardless of one’s final estimation of the late President, it served as an astonishing display of grace under pressure.
In July, 1952, Richard Nixon had reached an early, startling zenith in his political career. First elected to the U.S. Congress a mere six years before, and the Senate three years later, he had rapidly climbed the ladder of GOP politics on the strength of his staunch anti-Communist platform. As an unknown second-term Congressman, he had made riveting front-page headlines with a zealous pursuit of communist infiltration in the State Department. His prosecution of the Alger Hiss case, and the blanket paranoia it helped to foment, simultaneously led to the rise of Joe McCarthy and the “Red Scare.”
Such a heady rise caught many by surprise, and yielded the first serious hint of Nixon’s win-at-all-costs tactics. But it also made him the favorite son of GOP conservatives and, during the bitter intra-party fighting of the 1952 Republican convention, positioned him as a necessary, compromise Vice Presidential candidate. Thus, six years after entering Congress, Nixon became Eisenhower’s running mate.
The exhilaration that Nixon and his wife, Pat, experienced following the 1952 Convention was short-lived. Just two months later, and mere days into a formal whistle-stop campaign tour, Nixon was suddenly confronted with accusations of financial impropriety. A disgruntled Republican rival had tipped off members of the press to vague rumors of Nixon’s “questionable finances.” A subsequent investigation had uncovered ‘The Fund,’ a pool of donations by high-powered businessman designed to cover Nixon’s speaking, travel, and mailing expenses. Though the fund had never been deliberately obscured, its sudden appearance gave an immediate impression of impropriety, with Republican leaders questioning why its existence had not been divulged at the national convention.
Early press rumblings of a “slush fund” seemed innocuous though, and Nixon’s campaign manager, Murray Chotiner, dismissed the reports as “ridiculous.” Nixon himself explained to GOP cohorts that the roughly $16,000 fund had been established at the suggestion of his colleague Dana Smith, and all concerned had been “scrupulously careful” to “avoid any charges of improper collection or use”—a plausible, initial refutation of the story.
The allegation suddenly became a bombshell, however, on Friday, September 18, when the NEW YORK POST trumpeted a front-page headline of “Nixon Scandal Fund.” Campaign aide Keith McCormac witnessed the beginning of Nixon’s nightmare, following a triumphant campaign stop in Bakersfield, California. As the candidate climbed aboard his train in the effusive afterglow of a cheering throng, McCormac showed him the POST cover story. Nixon was so staggered by the sight of a banner front-page headline that he collapsed into a chair. The sudden, national scandal seemed so unexpected, so lethal, that a shaken Nixon needed help to reach his train compartment. McCormac later commented: “When I handed him that paper, he almost needed intensive care. They almost had to take him off the train.”
Almost instantly, concerned GOP stalwarts demanded Nixon’s resignation. It was the beginning of a four-day, round-the-clock denunciation of Nixon by almost every major newspaper. Even those in favor of Nixon suggested his resignation would be necessary to save the Eisenhower candidacy.
Eisenhower, who had thought highly of Nixon, quickly grew apprehensive. Though he admitted his reluctance to “prejudge any man,” he listened as his advisors made clear the case for Nixon’s dismissal. As Nixon later commented, the Eisenhower team was split between “those who thought I should be dropped immediately, and those who wanted to wait and see how public reaction developed.” In response, Eisenhower publicly advised Nixon to release all pertinent records in an effort to establish his innocence or guilt.
As aides began to assemble the necessary documentation, Nixon reluctantly continued his campaign schedule. But the scandal had shattered his composure. Campaign speeches became a grim scene, filled with mocking, jeering crowds. In Marysville, California, Nixon finally flashed his trademark temper. As the 20-minute stop was coming to a close, someone in the crowd yelled “Tell them about the $16,000.” At that moment the train began to pull out of the station. Nixon pointed into the crowd and yelled, “Now I heard a question over there. Stop the train, stop the train.” After a frantic signaling to the conductor, the train was stopped 100 yards down the tracks. The crowd of spectators ran up to catch the train and Nixon launched into a tirade, pointing his finger at the questioning heckler and “letting him have it.” Invoking his efforts to tackle the communist menace, he blamed the scandal on smear tactics by his opponents and explained that he had done nothing illegal in utilizing the fund for political communications.
The Marysville speech had little effect on what became an ever-gathering storm. A consensus of eastern newspapers declared Nixon a clear liability to the ticket. A majority of the GOP was cabling Eisenhower that Nixon had demonstrated an unforgivable lapse of judgment. Nixon’s close friends were advising him to resign quickly, for the sake of his career.
The pressure mounted with each day. Nixon’s father, Frank Nixon, had become so heartsick that he was reportedly bedridden. His mother, Hannah, later wrote: “I watched every moment on television and I felt I could hardly carry on.” Both Nixon and his wife began to suffer severe neck pains and insomnia, what Nixon remembered as “excruciating” pain in a time when he was “edgy and short-tempered…can’t eat…can’t sleep.” And, as each day led to further calls for his resignation, one of his closest friends, Harold Stassen, telegrammed the text of a resignation speech that he recommended Nixon deliver right away.
In the midst of the crisis, a close GOP colleague, Bob Humphreys, offered a startling suggestion. He begged Nixon and party to undertake an immediate national television broadcast to present Nixon’s case to the American people. Nixon should follow through on Eisenhower’s suggestion of complete financial disclosure and, on live TV, make the case for his own innocence. Several campaign members agreed that Nixon deserved the chance to clear his name and, with party approval, immediately set about collecting the roughly $75,000 in donations needed to cover a 30-minute broadcast. They quickly reserved an NBC primetime Tuesday night slot of 9:30 – 10:00 eastern time, following the Milton Berle show.
Exhausted and physically debilitated, Nixon and his entourage flew into Los Angeles on Monday morning and checked into a group of suites at the Ambassador Hotel. There, Nixon began writing and re-writing the notes for what he knew was a desperate final gamble. He later recounted, “I had been deserted by so many I had thought were friends…I knew I had to go for broke. This broadcast…had to be a smash hit.”
While ensconced in the hotel, news reports anxiously confirmed Nixon’s speech, to be given the next night. A UPI bulletin announced that Nixon would resign within the next 24 hours. The United Press quoted a Nixon staffer as saying the Vice Presidential candidate had “been thrown to the wolves.” Aides privately acknowledged that Nixon was red-eyed and drawn, on the verge of collapse. Room-service hamburgers were left uneaten as he hastily tried to cobble together a speech that would account for all his finances and expenditures for the previous six years.
As Nixon continued to work on his speech, a private audit by Price Waterhouse concluded that all money disbursed by the Fund had been properly accounted for as campaign contributions, an assessment Nixon would use as pivotal evidence in his speech. Remembering his solitary work on the speech, locked in his hotel room and unable to rest, Nixon recalled: “Only when I could deliver a speech without memorizing it, and if possible without notes, did it have the spark of spontaneity so essential to a television audience.” But already pushed beyond the breaking point, he felt there were “not enough hours in the day for me to get the ideas firmly enough in my mind.” It was a condition that writer Roger Morris, in his landmark Nixon biography, would describe as “utterly alone…pushed beyond the boundary of mental and physical tension.”
In writing the speech, Nixon knew he would have to “lay out for everyone to see my entire personal financial history,” a prospect that further demoralized his stricken wife. By Tuesday evening, though, he had assembled five pages of notes, the framework of the speech he would attempt to give.
Shortly before leaving the Ambassador for NBC studios, Nixon received a frantic call from Eisenhower aide and New York Governor, Thomas Dewey. It was Dewey’s task to call and report that Eisenhower had finally requested Nixon’s formal resignation. At the conclusion of the speech, Nixon was to resign his candidacy, and Dewey added, resign from the Senate, so as to possibly rescue the remains of his future career. Nixon was stunned and “dumbfounded,” looking, as aide Chris Hillings recalled, “like someone had smashed him.” Dewey breathlessly demanded to know what Nixon would do. But shattered by the additional blow, and not having slept in days, Nixon could only mumble, “Just tell them that I haven’t the slightest idea what I am going to do.”
The telephone conversation ended abruptly as Nixon was urged to a waiting motorcade for the ride to NBC. He hurriedly changed into a suit, “almost in a daze,” and then walked slowly down the hotel corridor, escorted by several aides. All of his staff and friends lined the corridor in a silent, solemn vigil. Some were crying. As Nixon later recounted, “It seemed like the last mile.”
At the studio, Nixon finally succumbed to nervous exhaustion. Shortly before the broadcast, he turned to his wife and said weakly, “I don’t think I can do this.” His wife, whom aides remembered as standing around, “nervously clasping a handkerchief,” simply responded, “Of course you can.” Shortly before 9:30 he took his place on the set, a “flimsy-looking, non-descript room,” complete with a desk, armchair, and bookcase, and was quickly briefed on where to sit and stand, so as to remain in view of the camera. He arranged his notes in preparation and glanced out at the empty, 750-seat soundstage.
At precisely 9:30 p.m., he launched into what was an almost entirely extemporaneous speech. In front of an audience of 60 million people, approximately 48.9 percent of possible viewers, he began, “My fellow Americans, I come before you tonight as a candidate for the Vice Presidency and as a man whose honesty and integrity have been questioned.” The purpose of the speech would be “to tell my side of the case.” He quickly outlined the charge of roughly $18,000 that allegedly was “secretly given and secretly handled.” Then, beginning a favored personal theme, he explained: “Not one cent of the $18,000…went to me for my personal use…every cent of it was used to pay political expenses that I did not think should be charged to the taxpayers of the United States.”
Not content to simply refute the charges, Nixon then moved into a chronology of his own expenses. He pointed out that, unlike many politicians, he had never placed his wife on a staff payroll, had never accepted legal fees while in office, and had eked out a living on his modest public salary. He mentioned the Price Waterhouse audit’s findings, and then moved into what was to become an unprecedented disclosure of personal detail, his own history, and his family’s particular finances.
By this point in the speech, Nixon had begun to relax. Sitting in the darkened studio, with only the camera in front of him, and his wife sitting to his left, he “began to feel that surge of confidence that comes when a good speech has been well prepared…I opened up and spoke freely and emotionally…as if only Pat were in the room and no one else were listening.”
He began to recite his early history, working in his family’s store, his work in high school and college. How he’d worked his way through law school. Then he listed all of his and Pat’s worldly possessions: his salary; some speaking fees; the rent on his and Pat’s Washington apartment; the mortgage on their house, “which cost us $41,000 and on which we owe $20,000; a “1950 Oldsmobile…our furniture”; no stocks or bonds. Then he commented, in what was to become a famous line, “Well, that’s about it. That’s what we have and that’s what we owe…Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable cloth coat. And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.”
The personal details had become so intimate that his mother watched the speech uncomfortably, later commenting, “I didn’t think I could take it.” But Nixon seized on the frankness of his disclosure to challenge both his opponents and Eisenhower to make the same frank accounting: “…because folks, remember, a man that’s to be President of the United States, a man that’s to be Vice President of the United States, must have the confidence of all the people.” Eisenhower, watching the speech, was so struck by Nixon’s insolence and apparently personal challenge that aides noted him stabbing his pencil into a notepad.
Toward the end of the speech, Nixon moved into one last, candid admission, the one that would give name to the speech itself. He paused for a moment, as if deciding something, then said: “One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election…It was a little cocker spaniel dog…[we] named it Checkers. And you know the kids love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say, we’re gonna keep it.”
At the conclusion of the speech, which Nixon had intuitively timed to an almost exact 30 minutes, he told the audience, “It isn’t easy to come before a nationwide audience and air your life as I’ve done…Let me say this: I don’t believe I ought to quit because I’m not a quitter.” He then explained how he was submitting the decision on his candidacy to the GOP. “I am going to ask you to help them decide…write the Republican National Committee whether you think I should stay on or whether I should get off. And whatever their decision, I will abide by it.”
With mere seconds to go, Nixon reminded the audience that, regardless, a “vote for Eisenhower is a vote for what’s good for America.” Then, suddenly, at 10 p.m., the camera went off the air.
Immediately upon finishing the speech, Nixon collapsed. Aide Ted Rogers remembered him in a “complete emotional daze,” so lost in the moment that he walked “head-on” into the camera. But on the set, the cameraman had tears running down his face, visibly moved by the depth of Nixon’s effort. Nixon himself was so drained that he threw his notes to the floor, staggering out in anguish, believing, as he told Rogers, “I loused it up.”
The scene in the soundstage, however, was repeated throughout the country, with many viewers visibly moved to tears. In Cleveland, Eisenhower’s campaign team watched the speech, transfixed. By the conclusion, many of them were openly weeping. The response across the country was electric, with Western Union’s telegraph lines instantly jammed. The national response was overwhelmingly pro-Nixon, running an estimated 75 to 1 in favor of keeping him. Front-page headlines heralded the speech as “Extraordinary,” “Magnificent,” “Eloquent.” An overnight shift saw Nixon’s, and Eisenhower’s, popularity skyrocket. An obvious consensus emerged that Nixon should remain on the ticket.
The entire emotional odyssey climaxed a day later in Wheeling, West Virginia, when Nixon was reunited with Eisenhower. Though the President-to-be had fumed at Nixon’s upstart effort, vowing to the press in a post-speech comment that ultimately it was his “judgment as to whether [Nixon]…should be saved,” all turned out triumphant in Wheeling. When Nixon’s plane landed, Eisenhower bounded up the steps to meet him. A stunned Nixon said, “You didn’t have to come down here to meet me.” Eisenhower smilingly replied, “You’re my boy.” With that, Nixon finally broke down. All the exhaustion and emotion of the previous five days overwhelmed him, and tears rolled down his face. Reporters recalled him looking haggard as he struggled to regain his composure.
In the end, the Eisenhower-Nixon team swept to victory by a margin of more than 6.5 million votes. It capped the early portion of Nixon’s stellar rise to power, prefiguring his later run for the Presidency in 1960 and California governor in 1962. But more curiously, the “Checkers” speech that turned him into a national hero yielded the Nixon who assumed full battle mode whenever a crisis emerged. His tenacity in riding out the debacle of ‘The Fund’ may well have proved the crucial element that led to the downward spiral of Watergate. Having snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat in 1952, it’s quite possible he believed he could do so again, when under siege in 1974. Regardless of such failings, Nixon remains a fascinating political figure, and one of the few to achieve such an astonishing resurrection as was wrought in his crucial speech on live TV in the early portion of his career.
I waved to her. “Winona, baby, I love you. Let’s get lunch.”
Winona glanced at me quickly, then looked away.
I leaned out my window. “Listen, Winona, you and I need to do a project together. We need a good vehicle. Something from the heart, you know?”
She turned to me quickly. “Uhh, thanks…no.”
I smiled. “Well, listen, I’ve seen all your work. Great stuff, beautiful stuff. You and I should do a drama together. Something people can relate to.”
She ignored me, but I continued. “People are tired of the big action stuff, you know, like Aliens 4, Rocky 5. All that junk. They want something more romantic. Like Officer and a Gentle–”
Winona turned to me sharply. “Hey, I was in Aliens 4.”
I paused. I looked at her. “Oh, well, baby…I loved Aliens 4.”
The light turned green. Winona’s car raced off in a screech of tires
I was at Natalie Merchant’s house in Los Feliz. She was throwing a big vegetarian bash to celebrate her new album ‘Intercontinental Holistic Missile.’ I made sure to fuel up on a big steak before the party.
When I got to Natalie’s place, I ran into Shannon Doherty at the bar. I ordered a glass of wine and gave Shannon my tough-guy-with-a-heart smile. “Hi, baby.”
Shannon turned to the bartender. “Un vodka con hielo, por favor.” She turned back to me. “You’re looking good.”
“So are you.”
The bartender poured Shannon a drink. She thanked him and put a $20 bill in his tip jar. I suddenly realized that I’d forgotten to tip the bartender. I quickly stuffed a $5 bill in his jar.
I picked up my wine and followed Shannon toward the living room. “So what’s new with you?”
Shannon was balancing her vodka carefully. The bartender had filled her glass to the brim. “Umm…just some auditions…What about you?”
Shannon stopped and took a sip of her vodka. Then she smiled at me. “Mmm…Yum.”
Suddenly Chickie Vaughn burst into the room. “Hey everybody. Come quick. Moby’s on the roof. He says he’s gonna jump.”
“OH MY GOD.”
A herd of people suddenly rushed out to the backyard. I found myself being swept along by the crowd. I saw the producer Vin Blunno race past me. David Schwimmer bumped into me. Some of my wine spilled on David’s shirtsleeve; he didn’t seem to notice.
We hurried out to the backyard and looked up at Moby. He was barefoot and wearing jeans, but no shirt. I could see his toes poking over the edge of the patio roof, just above my head. I heard Sally Field say to Vin Blunno, “Does anyone know where Natalie is? Maybe we should get her?…”
Everyone was looking up at Moby. He seemed greatly upset. David Schwimmer called up to him. “Come on down, Moby. Please come down. We love you.”
Several other people nodded. “Yeah, we love you. Come on down.”
Moby looked down at us and screamed. “NO…Nobody understands me. I can’t stand it anymore.”
I looked up at Moby. “But, Moby, you’re the voice of rock ‘n roll. We need you—”
Moby gestured angrily with his hand. “I hate rock ‘n roll. I hate it. I don’t want any part of it.” Saliva dribbled out of his mouth. He wiped his lips with the back of his wrist. “See. No one understands me.”
I tried again. “But baby—”
Suddenly Shannon Doherty grabbed me by the collar. She yanked me backward. “Hey, you’re not helping.”
I turned to her quickly. “I’m sorry, baby. Moby needs me.”
I turned back to Moby. He was pointing down at us. “I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna jump.”
William Shatner was standing directly under Moby. He turned to the crowd and waved his arms. “For God’s sake, give him room. Give him room.”
Moby wiped more saliva from his chin. “I can’t stand it anymore. I’m gonna jump. I’m gonna jump.”
Suddenly he made a piercing shriek and lifted his arms. He began flapping them and jumped off the roof.
He landed next to William Shatner. Almost instantly he screamed. “My foot. My foot. Oh my God. My foot.”
Shatner looked at him. “What’s wrong, man? What’s wrong?”
Moby pointed to his right foot. “My toe. My toe.” He screamed again.
Shatner squinted at Moby. “Your toe?…””
The crowd watched for a moment longer, then began to drift away. I heard Sally Field mutter, “I could use a martini.”
I looked over at Shannon Doherty. She’d finished her vodka. I gave her my full-muscle smile, the one where I clench up my neck to show off my upper body tone. “Want another drink?”
We walked back into the house and headed for the bar.