August/September 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 4
On September 23 Sen. Richard M. Nixon, the Republican candidate for Vice President, took to the airwaves in an attempt to save his political career. The Californian had been a rising star ever since he exposed the Communist spy Alger Hiss in 1948. Two years later he defeated a popular Democratic incumbent to gain his Senate seat. But now he was accused of maintaining a “secret fund” of $18,235—the equivalent of about $125,000 today—with contributions from wealthy California businessmen.
The existence of the fund was not in dispute, but its nature was. Democrats called it a “slush fund” and hinted at corruption and high living, while Republicans said that such funds were common and Nixon had not spent any of it on himself. After a week of maneuvering by party bosses and equivocation by the presidential candidate, Dwight D. Elsenhower, Nixon announced that he would make an address on television, in time paid for by the Republican National Committee.
He began by stating that the fund had been used for political purposes only—printing expenses, travel to speeches, and the like—and the donors had not received any favors. He read from a legal opinion that the fund broke no laws and gave an exhaustive account of his financial situation (“I own a 1950 Oldsmobile car … I owe $4,500 to the Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C.”). Along the way he mentioned his wife’s “Republican cloth coat” (rumors of a mink had circulated) and the family’s cocker spaniel, Checkers (a gift from a supporter, and “we’re going to keep it”), whose name has been associated with the speech ever since. He then called on the Democratic candidates to disclose their own finances and filled out the time with a stump-style speech praising Eisenhower and attacking the Democrats.
Nixon’s vigorous counterattack caught the Democrats flat-footed, for unlike Watergate, the fund “scandal” had little substance behind it. The fighting speech elicited a surge of support for the Republicans, who had been decided underdogs at the start of the campaign. Bookmakers had quoted odds as high as three to one in favor of the Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai E. Stevenson, and in a poll of political writers taken shortly before Nixon’s fund was revealed, 56 percent predicted a Stevenson win. Through the remainder of the campaign, Stevenson’s position continued to erode, and on Election Dav Eisenhower and Nixon enioved a one-sided victory.