CLINTON's nationally televised speech in which...

GOV. BILL

January 29, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR

GOV. BILL CLINTON's nationally televised speech in which hedenied having an improper relationship with a woman was often refered to as another "Nixon Checkers speech."

This reference may have escaped some younger readers. The original Checkers speech was delivered nearly 40 years ago. In that speech Richard Nixon denied having an improper relationship with a cocker spaniel. Let me re-phrase that. Nixon denied having an improper relationship with businessmen. More on the mutt later.

In 1952, then Senator Nixon was the Republican vice presidential nominee on the ticket with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Ike was campaigning against Democratic corruption among other things. Nixon presented himself as the very model of propriety.

Then in mid-September the New York Post reported a

SECRET NIXON FUND!

The paper said a group of wealthy businessmen was paying Nixon a supplementary "salary" of $18,000 so that he could live "in style" and do their bidding.

Before long he was being lambasted in Democratic and even some Republican newspapers as "a subsidized front man [for] a special interest group of rich Southern Californians," as one put it.

The pro-Eisenhower New York Herald Tribune said Nixon should offer to resign as nominee. The $18,000 looked like a slush fund. (And a big one. A senator's salary was just $12,500 then.)

Nixon said the commies were behind the "smear," but some of Eisenhower's advisers wanted to dump Nixon as a liability to a presidential nominee "crusading" against Democratic sleaze. Ike equivocated. Nixon fumed. He decided to go national television and explain the fund.

He denied ever using "one cent" of the fund for personal things. He said it was for campaign and office expenses. Then he played his trump card. He said he knew further attacks of this sort would come. And in fact, he admitted, he had accepted one personal gift. "A little cocker spaniel. Black and white spotted. And our little girl Tricia, the six-year-old, named it 'Checkers.' And you know, the kids love that dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're going to keep it."

The public reaction was overwhelmingly pro-Nixon. Ike kept him on the ticket. And eventually he became president, which, in his own view, would not have happened if he had been dumped in 1952.

Now, some historians believe it was the corny Checkers anecdote that saved him. It was a brilliant device, but I believe that in fact what saved him was that the "secret fund" stories were wrong. It really was just for office/campaign expenses. In 1952, at least, Nixon was not a crook.

It took more than a good speech, it took a good case to save Nixon. The same is true for Bill Clinton.

Saturday: State of the Union Address XLI.

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