Note: This first appeared in this blog one year ago today.
As scandals go these days the “Millionaire’s Club” or Fund Scandal that nearly bumped young Senator Richard Nixon off of the 1952 Republican Party ticket, seems like a tempest in a tea pot. It involved only $18,000 raised from political supporters in California—most of them wealthy men—to cover political expenses such as travel, hotel, meals, mailings, and telephones and such for a “permanent campaign” until the Senator was up for re-election in 1954. Even in those days, that was not a lot of money in a state the size of California.
None the less the national furor created by the exposure of the fund, and waffling, tepid support from presidential nominee Dwight Eisenhower seemed sure to force Nixon off of the ticket. In desperation the Republican National Committee (RNC), probably hoping for a gracious withdrawal speech, purchased a half an hour of live television time. On September 23 Richard Nixon went before the camera’s to plead his case in what became known as the Checkers Speech.
Nixon’s presence on the ticket as the vice-presidential nominee itself was unlikely. The Republican National Convention in Chicago that summer was a show down between conservatives solidly behind Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, and the Party establishment hungry for victor after being shut out of the White House since 1930. Turning to a 19th Century tradition of tapping popular war heroes, their candidate was the previously apolitical Eisenhower, who hadn’t even been a registered voter for years and was suspected by many of leaning to the Democrats who had also courted him.
Nixon arrived at the convention as part of the California delegation pledged to Governor Earl Warren as a favorite son. Warren and his supporter hoped that the convention would deadlock and turn to him. Despite Nixon’s public commitment, Warren’s friends believed that he had worked with Eisenhower’s forces behind the scenes to undermine the governor. The suspicions were heightened when, after winning the nomination on the first ballot, Eisenhower made Nixon his surprise choice for vice president.
Eisenhower was never that comfortable with Nixon, but he deferred to his political advisors. Vice presidents were chosen to balance the ticket. Nixon was from California and Eisenhower was nominally from New York where he was serving as President of Columbia University. Ike was a senior Army officer. Nixon had served with relatively little distinction as a junior Naval officer. But two other considerations trumped all others. Nixon was known as an aggressive campaigner who had shown in his triumph over Helen Gahagan Douglas for the California Senate Seat in 1950 that he was willing to "go negative" early and hard. Eisenhower as regarded as a "nice guy" with little stomach for political hard ball. Nixon could be the campaign's hatchet man while leaving the General above the fray. Nixon had also made his name as an anti-Communist in his single minded pursuit of the State Department's Alger Hiss on spying charges. Eisenhower's cordial war time relations with his Soviet allies made many conservatives sweat. So somewhat reluctantly, Eisenhower anointed Nixon who then was unanimously nominated by the Convention.
But all Politics is personal. Bitter supporters of Warren leaked word about a special political fund to the Press in early September. The to support the "permanent campaign" was suggested by Nixon's chief politcal operative Murray Chotiner after the 1950 election and was administered by Southern California campaign treasurer Dana Smith who solicited funds from wealthy donors in the Los Angeles area. Originally $16,000 had been raised and Nixon had spent $14,000 by 1952. An additional $2,000 was raised, which was insufficient to pay for Nixon’s 1952 Christmas card mailing.
After an appearance on Meet the Press on September 14, reporter Peter Edson of the Newspaper Enterprise Association asked Nixon about the Fund. The candidate casually acknowledged its existence and referred questions about it to Smith. Edson questioned Smith and his first story on the issue printed on September 18 was straightforward. It seemed doomed to be nothing more than a campaign hic-cup. But Leo Katcher of the New York Post also interviewed Smith and produced a much more sensational account under a headline that screamed “Secret Rich Men's Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far beyond His Salary” and called the fund “A rich man’s club.”
While on a whistle stop campaign tour in California, Nixon was shown a UPI version of the story which broke under the head “Nixon Scandal Fund.” The shaken candidate literally collapsed and had to be assisted back into the train. A seasoned politician who knew a thing or two about the art of the smear, Nixon immediately recognized the danger he was in even if his lieutenants did not.
The story gained ground with astonishing speed. By the next day Democrats were predictably calling on Nixon to withdraw from the ticket. So were numerous political columnists and newspaper editorials. At a campaign stop in Marysville that morning Nixon ordered the departing train to stop after he heard shouted questions about the scandal. He told the crowd that he was being unfairly attacked by “crooks and communists.” That evening, instead of extending his unconditional support, Eisenhower publicly called on his running mate to release all documents relating to the Fund, which Nixon and Chotiner considered a slap in the face.
On September 20 more than 100 newspapers editorialized on the issue favoring Nixon’s replacement on the ticket by a margin of two to one. Frightened Republican heavyweights began echoing the call. Eisenhower continued to refrain from public comment on or support of his partner while seeking ways to diffuse the situation. Former two-time GOP presidential nominee Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York phoned Nixon with the unwelcome news that most of Eisenhower’s advisors now wanted him off of the ticket.
That evening Chotiner prevailed upon RNC Chairman Arthur Summerfield to purchase the prime time television time for Nixon to mount a desperate last defense—or perhaps, Summerfield hoped, to gracefully resign. The RNC scrambled to raise the $75,000 necessary to by time on NBC television and on the CBS and Mutual radio networks. The speech was set for Tuesday, September 23 following Milton Berle’s hugely popular Texico Star Theater.
Nixon prepared for the speech at the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel conferring only with his top aids and wife Patricia. He did solicit appropriate quotes from Abraham Lincoln from his former professors at Whittier College. No advance statements about the speech or copies would be released to the press. For two days the press responded with wild speculation, much of it that Nixon would resign.
Nixon would address the camera directly with no questions or host. There would be no audience in the El Capitan Theatre where before a plain curtain a set of inexpensive “GI furniture” sat on an otherwise undecorated stage. The press was sequestered in an off-stage room and made to watch, like America, on television sets. A team of stenographers were on hand to provide accurate records of the speech, which Nixon planned to make off the cuff, using only notes.
On the eve of the speech, Nixon finally spoke with Eisenhower by phone who offered equivocal support for his chance to exonerate himself and would not commit to making a statement immediately following the broadcast. Nixon angrily snapped at the General that it was time to “shit or get off the pot.” The frankness did not endear him.
The same night word was released that Democratic Presidential Candidate Governor Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois, had a similar—and much larger fund. But the news was drowned out by continued speculation over Nixon’s fate.
The morning of the speech, Eisenhower received reports from the lawyers and accountants he had appointed to look into the fund. The lawyers concluded that the funds were perfectly legal and the accountants that the funds had not been improperly used for personal expenses. But Ike feared that it was insufficient and he was also peeved at Nixon’s attitude. He had aids phone Dewey with instruction to intervene again.
Movements before Nixon took the stage, Dewey called with the word that Eisenhower wanted him to resign. Nixon was furious, but noncommittal. He told Dewey if Eisenhower wanted to find out what he was going to do, he could watch just like everyone else. Before slamming down the receiver, Nixon added, “And tell them I know something about politics, too!”
Nixon began his speech seated at the desk with his hands folded in front of him. Pat was seated on stage in a near-by chair. He immediately went into a detailed explanation of the Fund and its political purpose while denying that he had used “one penny” for personal gain. He said unlike wealthy candidates—a swipe at Stevenson—he could not afford to pay for his political expenses out of pocket and did not want to inappropriately charge tax payers for them, hinting that Democrats had. He said some candidates met these kinds of expenses by the sham of having a wife on the payroll, as did Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Senator John Sparkman of Alabama. He said he could not continue to practice law in California because of the extreme distance to Washington and that continuing the practice could be seen as a conflict of interest anyway. “What was I to do?” he asked viewers.
Nixon then recounted his humble origins in Yorba Linda and his struggles to work his way through college and law school. He noted that his war time service interrupted his earning potential. He then gave an astonishingly detailed history of his personal financial history, including reliance on his government salaries alone, having to borrow from his parents despite small inheritances. He said he owed mortgages on modest homes in Washington and California and that his parents were living in the California house, drove a two year old Oldsmobile, and had no investments in stocks or bonds. He had even taken loans on his life insurance. He pictured himself as a typical struggling family man as Pat looked on adoringly.
Well, that's about it. That's what we have and that's what we owe. It isn't very much but Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we've got is honestly ours. I should say this—that Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she'd look good in anything.
He then added a little piece of drama that was inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous defense of “My little dog Falla.”
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 emotional moment even had NBC cameramen in tears.
Then Nixon shifted into a more familiar attack mode. He called on Stevenson and Parkman to make similar full disclosures of their funds, including the names of donors, and of their personal finances. He said that he fully expected more “smears against me.”
Dramatically coming from behind his desk and advancing to the camera he hinted that his prosecution of Alger Hiss was behind the attacks, thus linking Democrats with Communists. He claimed the country was in danger, “Seven years of the Truman-Acheson Administration and what's happened? Six hundred million people lost to the Communists, and a war in Korea in which we have lost 117,000 American casualties.” He said that Eisenhower was the only man who could save the country.
With just three minutes left in the broadcast the whole country leaned forward in their seats to see if all of this was only a valedictory statement prior to a resignation from the ticket. It was not.
I am submitting to the Republican National Committee tonight through this television broadcast the decision which it is theirs to make. Let them decide whether my position on the ticket will help or hurt. And I am going to ask you to help them decide. Wire and write the Republican National Committee whether you think I should stay on or whether I should get off. And whatever their decision is, I will abide by it. But just let me say this last word. Regardless of what happens I'm going to continue this fight. I'm going to campaign up and down America until we drive the crooks and the Communists and those that defend them out of Washington … He’s [Eisenhower] a great man. And a vote for Eisenhower is a vote for what's good for America.
Of stage Chotiner was ecstatic. He was sure that Nixon had triumphed. The insecure candidate himself was dejected. He told Pat that he had blown his opportunity. It was not until the couple returned to their hotel and found the lobby filled with wildly cheering supporters that he began to have confidence.
Eisenhower watched the performance from a room in the Cleveland Public Auditorium, where he scheduled to speak to a rally with growing furry. He was visibly upset when he realized that Nixon’s call for the Democratic ticket to reveal their finances would inevitably be matched by demands that he do the same. That would reveal a piece of sweet private legislation that had passed Congress allowing him to claim that the substantial income he received from the publication of his best selling memoirs as tax free capital gains. Secondly, he was mad that Nixon had made it look like the Republican National Committee rather than the candidate had the ultimate say on who was on the ticket. Finally, of course, he was mad that Nixon had not followed Dewey’s instructions. As a military man, he expected subordinates to follow orders.
Meanwhile the crowd in the Auditorium had listed to Nixon’s speech over the public address system. When Congressman George H. Bender asked the crowd if they want Nixon, wild cheering and chants of “We Want Nixon” erupted. The presidential candidate took to the floor praising Nixon and blaming his political enemies for persecuting him. But he stopped short of promising to keep him on the ticket.
Later that night he wired Nixon congratulations, but said that the two should meet that weekend in Wheeling, West Virginia to discuss the future of the ticket. Eisenhower’s telegram was lost amid the thousands pouring into the Ambassador Hotel, almost all supportive. Similar cables were burning up the wires to the RNC.
Nixon was miffed that he had not promptly heard from Eisenhower directly. When he heard of the request to meet in Wheeling, he was incensed. He briefly considered resigning from the ticket in protest and had his secretary Rose Mary Woods prepare a message to the RNC. He quickly reconsidered and took a considerably more belligerent tact. He told aids that he would continue with a planned campaign swing in Montana rather than go to Wheeling. He offered to meet Eisenhower later in Washington and then hinted he would not meet with him at all unless he had advance assurances that he would be kept on the ticket. It was a bold move. Too bold and sure to alienate Eisenhower.
Just before boarding a plane to Montana Nixon’s friend, journalist Bert Andrews reached Nixon by phone and convinced him to go to Wheeling. Public pressure, Andrews told him, would make it impossible for Eisenhower not to keep him on the ticket, unless he felt humiliated and snubbed by Nixon. None the less, Nixon continued on to Missoula.
Thousands of letters and wires were piling up at the RNC and at Eisenhower headquarters. Newspapers across the country were lining up behind the vice presidential nominee. After some tough third party negotiations, Eisenhower agreed to keep Nixon on the ticket if he would come to Wheeling.
There was an extraordinary scene on the tarmac at Wheeling Airport the evening of the September 24. Eisenhower waited for the plane to taxi in then climbed the stairs to greet Nixon and his wife as they opened the door. He threw his arms around Nixon as both men waved triumphantly to the crowd. They continued in a motorcade to the rally site with Nixon in the seat of honor. At the rally Eisenhower fully embraced his vice presidential running mate and announced that the RNC had voted unanimously to keep him on the ticket.
The stunning reversal of Nixon’s political fortunes, along with Eisenhower’s personal popularity, led to a route of Stevenson and Sparkman in November as Republicans also swept to majorities in both houses of Congress. The relationship between President and Vice President remained cool however, and Nixon was excluded from the circle of the President’s closest advisors. In 1960 Eisenhower’s support for Nixon as his successor was lukewarm, at best.
The speech had other lingering effects. Many historians regard it as the source of the reservoirs of incredible loyalty to Nixon by many “middle Americans” who stood by him as “one of their own” even in the darkest days of the Watergate Scandal. Democrats and liberals on the hand had an opposite reaction to the speech. They regarded it as smarmy and self-serving and it set up an antipathy to him that was unmatched by any other politician.
Nixon, the most politician most psychoanalyzed by historians, was scarred by the experience. His once cordial relations with the press were never restored. He viewed them with suspicion and distrust. He was also confirmed in his feeling that powerful forces were constantly conspiring against him. And he came to believe that he had the power to manipulate public opinion. These three traits would set him up for his epic fall more than twenty years later.