During the 1944 presidential campaign, Franklin Roosevelt made a speech in which he referred to Republican attacks on his dog, Fala. “Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family don’t resent attacks — but Fala does resent them,” FDR said, eliciting much laughter from the press. So effective was the president’s sly use of his pet that his opponent Thomas Dewey felt forced to respond to it in a speech.
A young Richard Nixon is said to have filed the incident away in his phenomenal political memory, and he eventually found a time to employ a variation of the technique.
In “Just Plain Dick,’’ Kevin Mattson, an Ohio University history professor, analyzes Nixon’s famous 1952 “Checkers speech” and the presidential campaign of that year, pitting Dwight Eisenhower against Adlai Stevenson. In that speech, the most-watched television broadcast to that date, Nixon responded to charges that he improperly, if not illegally, benefited from campaign contributions. Those knowledgeable about Nixon’s famously inadequate televised debates in 1960 against then-Senator John F. Kennedy will be surprised to learn the genius of the Checkers speech.
Facing pressure to resign as Eisenhower’s running mate, Nixon declared in the address that he had not used the donations for personal use but for the publication of his speeches and radio interviews, rather than depend on taxpayer money for such activities. He was forced to do this because he was middle class and not a rich man, he said, detailing his mortgage, Oldsmobile, humble origins as a grocer’s son, and his wife’s “respectable Republican cloth coat.” And then he got to the family pet: He told the audience that he should disclose that a supporter had given his family a dog “because if I don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me, too.” Nixon’s kids loved the pet, and “regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep him,” he said, his voice quivering.
Many pundits hated the speech, condemning its manipulative, maudlin content. But the public loved it. The Republican National Committee was inundated with calls demanding that Nixon stay on the ticket. Western Union called in extra help to transmit all the encouraging telegrams. People even sent Nixon dog collars, food, and blankets. Eisenhower kept him on because of the speech’s success.
Mattson, the author of six fine books on politics and intellectual history, contends that the speech transformed not only the 1952 election but also American political culture. It elevated populist authenticity to a degree hitherto unknown in politics, demonstrated the power of television and anti-intellectualism, and reflected the country’s postwar consumer aspirations. “Just Plain Dick” also shows how Republicans’ hard-line anti-communism in the campaign worked. Nixon’s persona as a “salesman against socialization” reflected the Cold War era and “projected a political style that remains with us to this day,” Mattson writes.
Most of Mattson’s arguments are unconvincing, however. Populism was a powerful force in America long before Nixon got kicked around. Andrew Jackson in the 1830s, not Republicans in the 1950s, perfected man-of-the-people appeals. More recently, Franklin Roosevelt and Louisiana Senator Huey Long showed populism’s appeal. What Nixon and his friend Joe McCarthy did pioneer was the utilization of populism to represent big business and the wealthy.
Nixon’s speech is memorable primarily because of its entertainment value in the post-Watergate era. Here is one of the most ethically-tainted leaders in American history exploiting his dog for political gain and sentiment. Even now, the speech somehow elicits sympathy for a man forced to disclose to millions of viewers his mortgage and debts.
Claims in “Just Plain Dick” that the 1952 campaign initiated anti-communism’s power are similarly dubious. It was the 1946 midterm elections, in which Nixon won a congressional seat by painting Helen Gahagan Douglas, his opponent, as “pink down to her underwear,” which first established the force of soft-on-communism charges. McCarthyism became a popular term as early as 1950, and Nixon’s investigation of accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss catapulted him to fame in that same year.
Even anti-intellectualism was a factor in American politics long before the 1950s, contrary to Mattson’s argument. Thomas Jefferson was declared unfit for the presidency, his opponents declared, because he was a “philosopher” and more dedicated to literary fame than to the country.
What did the 1952 election demonstrate? First, that Democratic icon Stevenson was an astonishingly poor presidential candidate. He acted as if he didn’t want the presidency, saying, “I am beginning to detect signs of ambition in myself.” He insisted on being drafted into the race and even joked that “ ‘I have no fitness — temperamentally, mentally or physically — for the job’ of being president.”
Most importantly, “Just Plain Dick” should disabuse the many recent biographers of the notion that Eisenhower was always honorable. His encouragement of McCarthy’s vicious slurs against General George Marshall — Eisenhower’s mentor — was unforgivable. Likewise, Ike’s attacks on President Truman’s foreign policies were wrongheaded and destructive, solidifying hysteria as America’s Cold War strategy. Eisenhower and Nixon’s 1952 campaign was an important contributor to this unfortunate development, and we are still paying the price for it today.