Exclusive to Nixonfoundation.org, Lee Huebner, former Nixon Speechwriter and current George Washington University Professor of Media and Public Affairs, has written an essay about then Senator Richard Nixon’s seminal Checker’s Speech given 60 years ago on September 23, 1952. The prime time television address forever changed presidential politics.
Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of one of the 20th century’s most significant public addresses — Richard Nixon’s much-praised, oft-scorned “Checkers Speech.” Delivered by then-Senator Nixon on the evening of September 23, 1952, in a dramatic attempt to answer charges that he abused a political expense fund, the half-hour address was the first American political speech to be televised live for a national audience and was watched or heard by some 60 million people. At stake was Nixon’s place as General Dwight Eisenhower’s running-mate on the Republican national ticket. The audience was the largest ever assembled.
Viewed through the prism of Nixon’s roller-coaster career, the speech resonates today largely because of a single passage: the mention of Nixon’s family dog, Checkers. Yet, a 1999 poll of leading communication scholars ranked the address as the sixth most important American speech of the 20th century — close behind the soaring addresses of Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The “Checkers” speech wins this high rank for one stand-out reason: It marked the beginning of the television age in American politics. It also salvaged Nixon’s career, plucking a last-second success from the jaws of abject humiliation, and profoundly shaped Nixon’s personal and professional outlook, convincing him that television was a way to do an end-run around the press and the political “establishment.”
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