Richard Nixon Denies Taking Illegal Campaign Contributions Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

When Richard Nixon was the running mate of Republican presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, he was accused of accepting $18,235 in illegal campaign contributions. Nixon went on television to defend himself. In the speech, he said that the only contribution he had received was a cocker spaniel puppy named Checkers, whom he would keep for his children.

Summary of Event

The United States presidential election of 1952 came at a time when Cold War tensions ran high and the American people were losing faith in their leadership. Disenchantment over U.S. involvement in the Korean War and accusations of communist spies within the federal government led Americans to seek stability. The Republican presidential candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his running mate, Senator Richard Nixon from California, capitalized on America’s desire for change. Together they launched the Republican drive for the White House by declaring a “great crusade” for honest, efficient government at home and freedom abroad. The Republican platform in 1952 was framed around the dual theme of fighting both corruption and communism. [kw]Nixon Denies Taking Illegal Campaign Contributions, Richard (Sept. 23, 1952) Campaign contributions;illegal "Checkers" speech (Nixon)[Checkers speech] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Richard Nixon[Nixon] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1952 Nixon, Richard Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and Richard Nixon[Nixon] Campaign contributions;illegal "Checkers" speech (Nixon)[Checkers speech] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Richard Nixon[Nixon] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1952 Nixon, Richard Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and Richard Nixon[Nixon] [g]United States;Sept. 23, 1952: Richard Nixon Denies Taking Illegal Campaign Contributions[00940] [c]Government;Sept. 23, 1952: Richard Nixon Denies Taking Illegal Campaign Contributions[00940] [c]Politics;Sept. 23, 1952: Richard Nixon Denies Taking Illegal Campaign Contributions[00940] [c]Radio and television;Sept. 23, 1952: Richard Nixon Denies Taking Illegal Campaign Contributions[00940] [c]Communications and media;Sept. 23, 1952: Richard Nixon Denies Taking Illegal Campaign Contributions[00940]

Senator Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate for vice president, speaks to a national television audience.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Attacking the alleged corruption of the Harry S. Truman administration, Eisenhower vowed to clean up the “mess in Washington.” The campaign pledged to restore confidence in and respect for the government. The case made a great impact on the public. In September, however, an obstacle threatened to jeopardize the Republican campaign. Reporters accused Senator Nixon of maintaining a secret fund to supplement his salary. This disclosure was at odds with the principles being emphasized in the Republican campaign. Thus, the party that had launched a moral crusade against its allegedly scandal-plagued opposition suddenly had a scandal of its own.

On September 18, the New York Post revealed that Nixon had been the beneficiary of an $18,235 slush fund raised by a group of his California supporters. It was alleged that Nixon personally benefited from this special fund, allowing him and his family to live beyond his salary as a senator. In the days to follow, newspapers responded with editorials. Some papers, such as Washington Post;and Richard Nixon[Nixon] The Washington Post, called for Nixon’s immediate withdrawal from the race. Regarding the vice presidential candidate as a political liability, several of Eisenhower’s advisers also demanded Nixon’s resignation.

Eisenhower himself, however, was particularly cautious in reaching a decision. He understood the risks involved. On the one hand, to drop Nixon from the ticket would jeopardize his hopes of being elected on the grounds that his own choice of running mate was as corrupt as the Democrats he had been criticizing in his campaign speeches. On the other hand, keeping Nixon on the ticket would appear to condone the practice of raising secret funds for public officials. Aware of the potential political repercussions, Eisenhower remained uncommitted. He neither publicly nor privately issued any statements of support for his running mate.

On the evening of September 21, three days after the story broke, Eisenhower finally phoned the senator to discuss the case. During the conversation, he encouraged Nixon to explain the political fund before a nationally televised audience. The public, he insisted, was entitled to the facts. By presenting his complete financial record, Nixon could overcome the rumors of moral reprobation and regain the trust of the American people. Ultimately, Eisenhower asserted, the decision to remain on the ticket was Nixon’s alone.

In an attempt to save his candidacy and, moreover, his political career, Nixon went on national television and radio to defend himself against the charges. On September 23, from the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, California, Nixon delivered what later became known as the Checkers speech, denying any wrongdoing. Reiterating several of the lines he had been using on the campaign trail, he responded to the charges of impropriety by providing a detailed account of his personal finances, including his assets and debts. Such a full financial disclosure was unprecedented in American politics. A fund did exist, explained Nixon, although it was used strictly to help defray the costs inherent in holding an elected office. Pleading personal poverty, Nixon attempted to identify with the average American family. The speech contained familial references, including the “Republican cloth coat” worn by his wife and a cocker spaniel puppy that was offered to him from a supporter in Texas; his young daughter named the puppy Checkers. It was the only gift his family had received. His children loved the little dog, and Nixon insisted that the family would keep him.

The speech proved to be dramatic. Nixon not only assumed the defensive but also used the speech as an opportunity to gain an edge in the campaign. He denounced communism and launched a counterattack against the Democratic presidential nominee, Adlai E. Stevenson, revealing that he, too, had a similar political expense fund while he served as governor of Illinois. At the end of the broadcast, Nixon offered an emotional plea by instructing viewers to wire and write the Republican National Committee (RNC) and assist them in deciding whether to keep Nixon on the ticket. Following his performance, Nixon was convinced that he had failed. In fact, the outcome was quite different.

Shortly after the program, tens of thousands of telegrams were sent through the wires offering messages of support. Nixon had successfully defended himself before the bar of public opinion. The speech was a great success. It won the unanimous support of the RNC, and Eisenhower ended the uncertainty. The following day, Eisenhower summoned Nixon to Wheeling, West Virginia, where he had been campaigning, and announced his decision to keep his running mate on the ticket. With the Checkers speech, Nixon became a national figure overnight, drawing larger-than-ever crowds.

Impact

The speech was unique in the annals of American history. It was one of the first major events of presidential politics to reach a national audience at home. A record-breaking fifty-eight million voters tuned in to Nixon’s broadcast, making it the largest audience ever, to that point in American history, to hear the speech of a politician. In fact, Entertainment Weekly magazine ranked the Checkers speech number twenty-nine in its top one hundred moments in television history.

Although the speech provoked disdain among certain sectors of society for Nixon’s disclosure of the most intimate details of his private life as well as his theatrics in exploiting his wife and his children’s dog to garner votes, most of the feedback was decidedly positive. During his performance, Nixon connected with the viewers, convincing most of his televised audience that he had not broken the law. With his apparent unrehearsed explanation, Nixon endeared himself to the American public. His sincerity and openness won him the admiration of many. The speech outmaneuvered the Democrats and turned a potential disaster for the Republican Party into a political advantage. Nixon remained on the ticket, and on election day, the Republicans won in a landslide victory.

It proved ironic that at the end of his political career, resigning from the presidency in 1974, Nixon stood for the corruption of power that he sought to combat in his campaign for vice president. However, in 1952, Nixon managed to save his candidacy, and ultimately his political career, and went on to serve two terms as vice president of the United States. He was inaugurated on January 20, 1953, the second youngest vice president in the history of the United States. Campaign contributions;illegal "Checkers" speech (Nixon)[Checkers speech] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Richard Nixon[Nixon] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1952 Nixon, Richard Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and Richard Nixon[Nixon]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ambrose, Stephen E. Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. In examining Nixon’s road to political life, Ambrose covers the crisis of the “secret fund” as well as the bitterness surrounding the 1952 presidential campaign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dallek, Robert. Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. In examining the relationship between Nixon and Henry Kissinger during the Nixon presidency, Dallek analyzes their personal traits and illustrates how certain personal crises affected their performance in office.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greenberg, David. Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003. Organized thematically, Greenberg explores the image of Nixon held by various segments of society, including the press, liberals, Nixon loyalists, and historians, and how the Checkers speech subsequently affected this image.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Roger. Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician. New York: Henry Holt, 1990. Offers a detailed account of the events leading up to the Checkers speech and Nixon’s struggle to remain Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice presidential running mate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nixon, Richard M. Six Crises. New York: Doubleday, 1962. Nixon offers his own account of his personal crisis involving the alleged slush fund and the subsequent Checkers speech.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Summers, Anthony. The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon. New York: Viking Press, 2000. An analysis of Nixon’s life from his early years until he became a politician. Contains a discussion of a litany of outrageous deeds Nixon allegedly committed, thereby demonstrating a pattern of mean-spirited behavior.

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