Beginning of Fund Speech
I come before you tonight as a candidate for the Vice Presidency and as a man whose honesty and — and integrity has been questioned.

—Richard Nixon

September 23, 1952

We all know that Richard Nixon is one of the most complex and important figures of 20th Century American history.  To understand his time; you must first consider the events of the Fund Crisis and the resulting speech that RN made to a national audience fifty seven years ago tonight.  It was the real, somewhat impromptu introduction of Richard Nixon to a national audience of 60 million, the largest audience up to that time.  Those days in 1952 created the public’s prejudice towards RN, and even Nixon’s prejudice towards politics itself.

The fund crisis would also have long term consequences for Nixon’s career.  One can see the seeds of it later appearing in the 1962 final press conference and the siege mentality that dominated his presidency.

On September 18, 1952, “Secret Nixon Fund!” was the front page headline in the New York Post.  It was recognized as a partisan paper of the time.  The revelation of Nixon’s fund was probably made by a supporter of Earl Warren.  (See Newton, Jim, “Justice for All: Earl Warren and The Nation He Made,” (2006) p. 257.) {Warren was governor of California, the Vice Presidential nominee in 1948, and a rival for the VP nomination in 1952.  In fact, many advisers wanted Warren to be the VP nominee — after of course Nixon stepped aside.} It was one that almost ended his career before it started.

It was about a fund that took care of some of Nixon’s expenses that were political in nature, and ones that couldn’t be covered by a senator’s salary.  Originally it was created in anticipation of a 1956 re-election run for the Senate.  (See Morris, Roger, “Richard Nixon: The Rise of the American Politician”, (1990) p. 634.) Opponents would call it a ‘slush’ fund.  However in the aftermath of the Fund Crisis, it was discovered that the Democratic nominee for President, Adlai Stevenson had a ‘slush’ fund ten times the size of Nixon’s.

But Nixon’s was the first fund that was revealed.  Many top party leaders and Eisenhower advisers wanted the junior senator from California to withdraw from the Vice Presidential nomination.  Even the reporters on the ‘Nixon Special’ train almost unanimously (40-2) thought Nixon should leave the ticket.  (See Wicker, Tom, “One of Us,” (1991) p. 88.) However, RN decided on a unique approach.  He would take his case directly to the American people in a televised address to the nation.

The speech took place at the El Capitan in Los Angeles.  It was a complete explanation of his finances, that left nothing to hide.  After Nixon pleaded with his audience “to wire or write the Republican party” — he thought that he failed.  Yet, the positive response to the speech was overwhelming for Nixon.  For the first in many times, Nixon survived after being counted out.

The Fund Crisis and the speech would transform his career; and how Nixon was thought of in the country.  While the Hiss case five years earlier might have started it, the fund crisis and speech polarized and cemented opinions about Nixon.  It would garner lifelong friends and enemies as well.

The Checkers speech did this the most.  Supporters of Nixon’s began to see him as an everyman, a common person with the same financial problems as everyone else, with a populist philosophy.  According to Herbert Parmet, to these supporters Nixon “was a figure from a Frank Capra movie, a “Mr. Smith” who had gone to Washington and found himself contending with all the problems that the Mr. Smiths of America could recognize.”  (See Parmet, Herbert, “Richard Nixon and his America,” (1990) p. 246.)

On the other hand, the critics of Nixon would point to the speech as the first example of Nixon’s manipulative politics, and questionable character. Walter Lippmann described the speech “a disturbing experience…with all the magnification of modern electronics, simply mob law.”  (See Morris, p. 854.) To these observers, Nixon would always have a political target on his back, and questions about character.

The positive reaction to the speech suggested to RN that he could go over the heads of the print and other media.  He could use the new medium of television to talk directly to the American electorate.  In the future, RN would have no use of the press, in spite of the favorable coverage given to Nixon in his campaigns for Congress in 1946-1950.  RN would be one of the first national leaders to use television in its infancy.  Years later, in the debates of 1960, Nixon would see the negative impact of television as well, since most people though Nixon won the first debate on the radio.

It also forever altered his relationship with President Eisenhower.  RN would always resent Ike for allowing him to twist in the wind.  Relations with the Eisenhower staff started on the wrong foot and stayed there, since many, including close advisers Sherman Adams and Thomas Dewey preferred Nixon’s withdrawal from the ticket.

For his part, Eisenhower didn’t appreciate his young running mate’s call for full financial disclosure during the speech.  The subtle schism only affected the administration behind the scenes.  It would set the stage for Eisenhower’s attempt at nudging RN off the ticket in 1956, and his lukewarm support of RNs presidential bid in 1960.

The events of this night 57 years ago would be a bitter learning curve for the young nominee.  RN was surprised and embittered with the number of friends who would abandon him.  In the words of Jonathan Aitken: “What really hurt them was the public questions of the financial integrity that had been the cornerstone of their lives.”  (See Aitken, Jonathan, “Nixon: A Life”, (1992) p. 221.) In his Memoirs, Nixon said that he learned that “In politics most people are your friends only as long as you can do something for them or something to them.” (See, Nixon, “RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, (1978) p. 110) Nixon would recount the lessons of the Fund Crisis for the rest of his career, and make the Fund speech required reading for his speech writers and staff. (See Safire, William, Safire’s Political Dictionary, (2008), pp. 113–15.)

For his wife, the reaction to the Fund Crisis would be starker.  While Mrs. Nixon was very critical of revealing private details of their lives, her encouragement of Nixon minutes before the speech would be decisive.  Still the experience scarred her for the rest of her life.  It was one matter that Pat Nixon wouldn’t talk about, the one person that RN didn’t remind about the anniversary of the speech.  (See Eisenhower, Julie Nixon, “Pat Nixon: The Untold Story,” (1986), p. 126.) Nixon would write in his memoirs that those difficult days would make his wife “dream of the day I would leave it behind.”  (See Nixon, p. 108.)