Forty years ago, on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon announced that he was resigning from the presidency -- his political career was in shambles after his involvement in the Watergate scandal came to light. Watergate effectively ended his life in politics, but his career could have been over two decades earlier -- if it weren't for a dog named Checkers.
In 1952, when then-Senator Nixon from California was selected as Dwight Eisenhower's vice-presidential pick, Nixon found himself steeped in another, near-disastrous scandal. Nixon had been accused of accepting $18,000 dollars from backers, allegedly in exchange for political favors. As a result, some members of the Republican Party began to urge that Nixon to be dropped from the ticket.
Nixon, meanwhile, contended that the money was not for his personal enrichment, but was instead part of a fund meant to cover political expenses, like travel between Washington D.C. and his home state. And he was right. There was nothing illegal about those contributions, but just the hint of controversy was enough to diminish his well-honed image as an incorruptible, "everyman" sort of politician.
In an unprecedented move aimed at salvaging his rapidly derailing political career, Nixon purchased a 30-minute spot on national television and radio to win back the fading support of the American people.
A record audience -- at the time -- an estimated 60 million people tuned in to listen and watch as Nixon argued his case, addressing each of the accusations that were leveled against him. The up-and-coming politician mounted a convincing defense, coming across as thoughtful and sincere as his wife, Pat, sat steadfastly by his side.
The true stroke of rhetorical genius in Nixon's address, however, came not in proving that he was guiltless of a crime, but rather that he was a likable fellow.
In what is widely regarded as the most memorable moment of the speech, Nixon admitted to having accepting one valuable present from a supporter that he had no intention of explaining away:
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.
As corny as this simple sentiment might come across as now, for folks listening in, it carried an emotional punch. Eisenhower's wife, Mamie, is even said to have shed a tear upon hearing Nixon mention his dog. The effect on the American viewing public was apparently no less profound.
Nixon had done it. The tide of unfavorability had turned. He'd recovered his amiable, family-man persona with the help of his dog.
After the speech, a relieved Eisenhower embraced his running mate, who had become America's most high-profile dog lover, telling him "Dick, you're my boy." A few months later, in November, the pair would go on to win a sweeping victory in the presidential election, and set up Nixon for his own run at the office a few years later.
The man himself took umbrage to suggestions that Checkers was responsible for it all, remarking later that not all the credit should go to the black and white cocker spaniel "as though the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my political career."
But the speech, now commonly known "The Checkers Speech" is regarded by many as the most critical one made in Nixon's career.