On September 23, 1952, Richard Nixon – the junior U.S. senator from California and the Republican nominee for vice president – made a speech to address allegations that he had, illegally or at least unethically, profited from his campaigns. Nixon, who earned a healthy salary of around $125,000 in 2020 dollars, lived “in style far beyond his salary,” according to the New York Post, and the suspicion was that he benefited from a slush fund. These funds were set up to support candidates by covering expenses that were neither covered by their expense accounts (Nixon had a massive senatorial expense account but also had to maintain offices and staff throughout California) nor by their campaign funds, which were primarily for running for office; Nixon’s fund was set up to pay expenses like child care or travel to other states for events, things that would allow him to bolster his national reputation but that weren’t typical campaign or senate office expenses. None of this was illegal, but when it was revealed the fund was worth more than $200,000 (again, in 2020 dollars), on top of Nixon’s salary and his senator expense account, the whole thing smelled like corruption. Who were the people giving to the fund and what did they get in return for their gifts?
Throughout September 1952, Nixon’s fund was the top political story. Dwight Eisenhower, the decorated general who Republicans had backed as the presidential nominee, faced pressure to ditch Nixon and select a new running mate. As his train made campaign stops around the country, Eisenhower faced protesters with signs like “Donate Here to Help Poor Richard Nixon,” and he urged Nixon to address the issue.
Price Waterhouse, a respected accounting firm, evaluated the fund and determined that it could not find evidence that money in the fund had been misappropriated. Attorneys were brought in and issued opinions that the funds were legal and sound. Nixon resolved to make an address to the nation. In the address – which the Eisenhower campaign had asked to be a resignation address (Nixon declined to do so) – he outlined the fund, why it existed, and what it was for. He said that much of what was believed by the public about it was untrue, for which he blamed communists and Democrats. And then he talked about his dog.
“One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don’t they’ll 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’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
The speech became known as the Checkers speech and it was an enormous political victory for Nixon. Though Eisenhower was furious that Nixon hadn’t resigned, some four million messages were sent to the Republican National Committee – telegrams, letters, phone calls – in support of Nixon’s candidacy.
Sixty-eight years after the Checkers speech, no one at the RNC is holding their breath expecting the incumbent president to extol his dog on national television in a bid to save his struggling candidacy.
The Trumps have no dog, possibly because Donald Trump does not like dogs (and, as Vanity Fair suggested in 2019, does not fully understand what a dog is). Trump is not concerned with the optics of a pet-less house because optics do not concern him at all. He won the 2016 election without worrying about optics; the electoral college does not require him to in the way it required Nixon to, nor do the politics of the new age of social media.
Yet in the wake of the New York Times‘ publication of the president’s tax returns, it seems like a Checkers speech is exactly the thing the Trump campaign needs. The president is struggling with the voters that carried him in 2016. In states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, Trump’s appeal to the common man worked when he ran against Hillary Clinton, who has always been seen as a privileged and slightly out-of-touch person, but struggles against Scranton-born Joe Biden. The revelation that Trump paid just $750 in federal income tax in 2016 won’t sit well with voters who wanted to believe that Trump was on their side and was going to take down the fat cats that caused the 2008-12 financial crisis.
This isn’t about the bulk of the president’s base. His base, that permanent 42-45% floor that is going to support him no matter what, they’re a lost cause. But they’re also not enough to win an election on their own, and Trump seems incapable of addressing that. When asked about the Times story, Trump dismissed it as “fake news,” like he does with anything he doesn’t like.
As always, none of this means Trump can’t win re-election. But the writing has been on the wall for a long time: Trump, who lost the popular vote in 2016, certainly hasn’t gotten more popular since then, and is unlikely to win the popular vote in 2020. There’s been no real effort to connect to voters. Instead, the campaign paints voters who aren’t already die-hard Trump supporters as “Trump resistance,” even if they’re, at worst, simply undecided.
Nixon disliked the term “Checkers speech” and eventually came to dislike the speech in its entirety. He believed that the speech helped him stay on the ticket and win the vice presidency but that its role was overplayed. The dog got all the credit, Nixon felt, when he was the brilliant mastermind that wrote the speech. Nixon and Trump are, in so many ways, two peas in a very unfortunate pod.
“…I have never obstructed justice. And I think, too, that I can say that in my years of public life, that I welcome this kind of examination because people have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.”Richard Nixon, 1973
But for all Nixon’s many failings, he was an adept politician, and he was able to use that to win the vice presidency and later the White House. Trump, on the other hand, was able to stumble into the White House on blind luck and, four years later, its clear the only strategy the campaign has is to see if lightning will strike twice.