The Checkers Speech — 61 Years Ago Today

One day in 1974, as Spring began to give way to Summer, Frank Gannon—wordsmith and White House Fellow—took a walk in Washington, largely to get away from the stress induced by the Nixon White House’s ever-increasing Watergate milieu. He found his way to an old theater—one that happened to be featuring a triple billing of anti-Nixon films.  He felt uncomfortable—even somewhat guilty—for being there, but for whatever reason even this was a welcome break from what was happening a few blocks away.  He looked around and, though the lights were out, sensed the crowd’s unmistakable derision every time Richard Nixon’s familiar image appeared on the screen.

Then something curious happened.

The final feature of the odd cinematic trilogy was the simple replaying of a speech Mr. Nixon had given more than two decades earlier—on September 23, 1952—at another embattled moment in his career.  The grainy video was designed to be the program’s pièce de résistance.  But as a much younger Richard Nixon delivered his remarks on the screen that day, it was the audience that Gannon noticed.  For whatever reason, the sarcastic hisses had stopped as Nixon spoke of finances and family and a dog named Checkers.  It was almost as if these decidedly anti-Nixon partisans were suddenly fascinated.

Checkers_speechThey were.  Many still are.

He was 39-years old and on the verge of national leadership—the junior United States Senator from California and the Republican nominee for Vice President.  He was living the American dream and fulfilling many of his own.  And along the way, he carried the hopes of a new generation of Americans, those who had emerged from the darkness of global conflict with renewed resolve to embrace life and ensure that such a catastrophe never happened again.

In fact, this rising political star whose magnitude had increased so dramatically in six short years, had already experienced the clash of personalities and ideologies that was to define his generation. Richard Milhous Nixon would be a transcendent political figure in America for quite some time.  His name would appear on five national ballots—a feat equaled only by Franklin Delano Roosevelt—two times for Vice-President and three for President.  And like FDR, he would lose only once, and that barely to another young politician, this one from Massachusetts, who was making his own history in 1952.

Mr. Nixon is most often remembered through the prism of how his career—at least the public part—ended in August of 1974.  This is not only unfortunate, but it also prevents us from figuring out how this man who fathomed such deep valleys managed to actually scale the highest political mountains extant.  How could Nixon have done all he did if the caricature of him in the minds of so many Americans was an accurate characterization?

Understanding what he did in 1952 is crucial to processing all the rest. What is lost to so many in the fog of all that later transpired, is that Richard Nixon was actually right on the facts, as well as the politics, in 1952.  He did not wiggle out of a mess. In fact, he demonstrated a clear capacity for communication and connection with the American people.

It was the dawn of the television age—the beginning of an entertainment, information, and communication seismic shift. In living rooms around the country, the large radio, complete with it’s prominently displayed dials, would be exiled to elsewhere in the house and the furniture would begin to arrange itself around the new media kid in town. The device that Edward R. Murrow would later characterize as “lights and wires in a box,” would eventually become so essential to Americans that they wondered how they ever lived without it.  Although, until that September night when Richard Nixon spoke “coast to coast,” the shift from wireless to tube was anything but a done deal.  And as the young politico prepared to make his case to the American people, he had no way of knowing that not only what he had to say would be important, but where he said it would be, as well—even more so.

It was the first synchronization of medium and message for a new age. This was the moment when television began to trump radio—even motion pictures—as the entertainment choice du jour of Americans.  We loved Lucy, watched “Uncle Miltie,” and got our information more and more as much from Edward R. Murrow as from the venerable morning and evening newspapers.

In fact, in many ways it was the Checkers speech that signaled the beginning of our ever since fascination with the glowing tube.  More Americans watched Nixon that September night than would watch any single event on T.V. for many years to come.  But even politicians were slow to figure out what it all meant. The Republican National Committee put their Vice Presidential candidate on two radio networks (Mutual and Columbia; MBS, CBS), while on only one television hook-up (NBC).  But, no matter—suspense built, and by airtime at 9:30 p.m. (eastern) on Tuesday, September 23, 1952 nearly 60 million viewers tuned in—an unheard of audience up to that point and well beyond.

Forget what else was airing or happening, or that Jersey Joe Walcott was defending his World’s Heavyweight Boxing Championship that very night and hour against a guy named Rocky Marciano—the fight had been blacked out on radio and television anyway and could only be seen live in Philadelphia or via a primitively skeletal network of closed circuit venues (complete with its famous knockout punch)—people wanted to hear what this man accused of financial improprieties would have to say.  Would he resign from the Republican ticket? Would he tell the truth?  Would he really give out his personal financial details when no other politician at the time did?

What viewers saw that night was a presentation—primitive in its production quality, in keeping with the technology of the young medium—carefully crafted and skillfully delivered.  It was a deliberately arranged combination of facts, figures, family, and country.  At moments it was clinical.  Occasionally it was corny.  But it all worked.

The great General of World War II and D-Day, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Republican candidate for President and the man who held Nixon’s fate in his recently-indecisive hands, made notes as he watched his young running mate on television.  And at one point, something Nixon said so disturbed him that he broke his pencil on his pad of paper.

Mrs. Eisenhower wept as she watched.

Mrs. Nixon sat near her husband at the otherwise empty El Capitan Theater in Hollywood.  Some reporters saw his wife’s presence cynically, but they soon forgot about it as Mr. Nixon told a story that would chisel this small screen moment in storied stone.  It was about a cocker spaniel: Yep—a dog.  A dog named Checkers.

nixon-checkers_11The broadcast was missed by many and dismissed by many more.  The Democratic nominee for President that year, Adlai Stevenson—a man who prided himself on his use of the spoken word—didn’t even bother watching.  He was convinced that television was a passing fad for plebeians.  And even after watching the speech, Mr. Eisenhower still did not know what to make of, or do, with Nixon.  It was powerful political drama, but more than that—it was great cultural drama.

Nixon didn’t read a script or use a teleprompter, but rather he used a few notes to aid his prodigious memory, as would be his style throughout most of his public career. He demonstrated a mastery of detail and appeared to Americans as a sort of new kind of political communicator—just a guy having an animated conversation with friends. When the half-hour was up, the camera lights turned off before the candidate could actually give out the contact information for phone calls and telegrams to the Republican National Committee.  Mad at himself for such an inexactitude, he was certain that he had failed—until he noticed one of the cameramen crying.

A few minutes later Darryl Zanuck, the Hollywood mogul whose career included the production of the first “talking” movie (The Jazz Singer in 1927) and hits such as All About Eve (1950), phoned.  He told Richard Nixon that the broadcast was “the most tremendous performance” he’d ever seen.  This from a man known for the saying: “There is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic.”

Calls and telegrams overwhelmed the RNC.  It was quickly obvious that Nixon had not only won the day, but that he had tapped into something powerful.  He had gone directly to the people in a way not really done before.  Americans had read and heard speeches for generations, but this was something different—they saw and, for a brief and shining moment, they connected.  And what too many casual observers miss is that Richard Nixon not only survived his first firestorm, he triumphed that night in 1952.

[This article was originally written for the Nixon Foundation — DRS]

Uncle Vladimir

[This column appears at TOWNHALL.COM today – DRS]

Vladimir Putin is currently cashing in on an ill-advised promise made when two presidents thought no one was listening. You may recall President Obama’s whispered assurance, back in March of 2012, to then Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev: “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.”

We are now witnessing that promised flexibility. America’s foreign policy is becoming a caricature—international affairs according to Gumby.

putin_gun_1512248cRussian President Vladimir Putin is a mix of Joseph Stalin and Lavrenty Beria—an experienced strongman and savvy intelligence officer. He is hardly someone to be impressed by “flexibility.” Vladimir is all about power and the expansion of Russian influence on the world. He also enjoys it when America looks bad. It makes him smile—sort of.

A while back, I read Michael Dobbs’ account of what happened when the “Big Three”—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—met at Yalta to carve up what was left of Europe. The book is called, Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War. I heartily recommend it to anyone wondering if history repeats itself, or at least rhymes.

Dobbs gives a wonderfully detailed account of a weak president being bested by a determined Soviet dictator.  FDR gave territory and history away to a ruthless tyrant.  A war that started, in part, with a Soviet invasion of Poland, ended with Soviet dominance of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe.

Now with Vladimir Putin inserting himself in a grand way into the current Syria crisis, not to mention joining the editorial staff of the New York Times, the voice of Yogi Berra can be heard crying in the wilderness: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

We must learn from history’s clock. It was dangerous and wrong to trust the Russians back then, and it is dangerous and wrong to trust them now.

In May of 1945, George Kennan was an American diplomat living and working in Moscow. Most Cold War buffs know very well of Kennan’s memo writing skills. His February 1946 “long telegram” is considered to be one of the seminal documents of the Cold War. In it, he described the Soviet Union’s “neurotic view of world affairs” and the “instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” not to mention their, “secretiveness and conspiracy.”

But ten months earlier, Kennan wrote a memo that was largely overlooked at the time due to his relatively insignificant role as “nothing more than a highly competent clerk.” It is, in fact, that memo Mr. Obama and team should revisit right now. In language similar to what he would use in 1946, he bluntly acknowledged that Joseph Stalin knew just what buttons to push to get the United States to do his bidding. The Russians were already manipulating reality and events and had been all along. Kennan wrote: “They observe with gratification that in this way a great people can be led, like an ever-hopeful suitor, to perform one act of ingratiation after the other without ever reaching the goal which would satisfy its ardor and allay its generosity.”

Franklin Roosevelt gave the store away to Mr. Stalin and company at Yalta. His inexperienced successor, Mr. Truman, didn’t do much better at Potsdam. But of course, they were dealing with a Soviet dictator and we are dealing with Vladimir Putin. Putin is nothing like Stalin, right?

Yalta_summit_1945_with_Churchill,_Roosevelt,_StalinActually, Mr. Putin has more in common with the pock-faced “man of steel”—referred to at times by Roosevelt and later Truman as “Uncle Joe”—than most people care to notice. He is driven by power and is one dangerous dude. The decision to portray him in sinister terms in my novel, Camelot’s Cousin, was not just a fictional tool, but rooted in scary reality. There are good guys and bad guys in the world. And then there are dumb guys who can’t tell the difference. They may be the most dangerous of all.

As President Obama looks for solutions in Syria and the Middle East by dancing with Vladimir Putin, he is looking for love in all the wrong places.

Sixty-eight years ago, it took a glorified clerk and a recently-booted-out-of-office politician to remind the world that Russia could not be trusted. Kennan wrote his telegrams. And Winston Churchill gave a speech about “the sinews of peace” and that ominous “Iron Curtain.”

In many ways, the key to the present crisis and future success is a good long look at the past.

Putin Writing For The New York Times–Stranger Than Fiction?

vladimir-putinNow that Vladimir Putin has apparently joined the editorial staff of the New York Times :-), I am wondering how long it will be politically acceptable to make him and/or the Russians the “bad guys” in fiction?

Those of you who have read my novel, CAMELOT’S COUSIN, know that Mr. Putin is a player in the story. How did I connect him to the Kennedy Assassination, of all things? Well, you’ll have to read the book. 

It now has more that 170 customer reviews at Amazon, with an average rating of 4.6 stars out of a possible 5. I am so grateful to the thousands of readers who have enjoyed the story. If you haven’t read it, grab a copy today, either in e-book or paperback format.

Here are a few of the customer comments about CAMELOT’S COUSIN.  — Best Regards, — DRS

What some readers are saying (from Amazon Customer Reviews):

“The author has taken true historical facts of the Cold War era and woven a most wonderful tale which is difficult to put down. Even touching upon and offering a believable reason for the assassination of President John F Kennedy, the book is very readable for someone like me who has lived through the post war sabre rattling between the USSR and the USA. A book to be enjoyed and one that makes for much conjecture as to what really happened.” – Barrie M

Walk on a roof edge“Love the book. Gives you a new possible view of the Kennedy assassination . It is fictional but very believable story.”- Mary Faust

“I was interested to read this because I used to work for an attorney in Memphis, now deceased, that was a member of the OSS and was stationed in London during WWII. He had spoken to me of Kim Philby and he had several books in his library about him so the subject was of great interest to me. I really enjoyed the writing style of Mr. Stokes and the story moved along nicely. As a fan of historical fiction I recommend this book to any one who is interested in the subject.” – Florence Izzi

“I tried this book on for size because I enjoy reading espionage stories and this one sounded interesting. I was not at all familiar with the author but I am a huge fan now. This is a terrific book! Stokes writes in a style that flows and informs as well as entertains. I found the Kennedy tie in to not only pique my interest but hold it firmly tight. This is one of those keep me on the edge of my seat–I hate to put it down for fear I’ll miss something books. I will most definitely turn to other books by Mr. Stokes. Check this out my friends–you’ll be glad you did” – Daniel

I ordered this e-book because it was cheap. Boy, was I in for a big surprise. The storyline is fast-paced and really, really believable. My acid test for a book is whether it keeps me reading at bedtime. This one passed with flying colors. My only disappointment is that there’s no sequel.- Longtime Sailor  [Note to Longtime Sailor – I am working on sequel now, stay tuned! — DRS]

“This book is a wild ride through history and into the present, pulling in the famous Cambridge spy ring and its star defector Kim Philby, Putin’s Russia, and with side trips into JFK’s Oval Office. The book is fiction, but is presented in such a way that builds a case for believability as each piece of information gathered is placed into the growing puzzle. It’s well-crafted and digs deeply into the old late 20th century world of spying and tradecraft, enough to warm the heart of most spy thriller veterans. Most of the book is presented at a pretty fast clip, but slows down near the end as both the hero and the reader need time to wind things down to a realistic and satisfying conclusion. Just because the Cold War is over, it isn’t necessarily the end of exciting, modern spy novels. This book proves it by using the past as a basis for adventure and excitement in the present. Recommended.” – Nyssa

“In recent moths I have read many books associated with JFK and his assassination. This one was an up-all-nighter..I recommend it for a new POV for the conspiracy theories around this event..”- Mary K. Hunt

As someone who was beginning a career in counterintelligence in 1963 I found this book to be very interesting and informative with great historical insights. Anyone interested in the Cold War period, espionage and spies will find this a great read. – Harry J.

Read these and the rest of the 171 customer reviews HERE.

A Labor Day Look Back At A Pivotal Moment

shirtwaist-fire-9th-floorToday, on Labor Day 2013, it’s likely that many Americans know little about the circumstances and conditions that influenced the labor movement in America. I am a supporter of “right to work” laws, but I also know that there was a time when unionism provided the only hope millions of workers had for better working conditions–not to mention better lives.

On March 25, 1911, approximately 500 workers were crafting “shirtwaists,” blouses with puffy sleeves and tight waists. These garments were the height of feminine fashion in America during the years before World War I and worn by “Gibson Girls.” It was part of an image personifying beauty, with a touch of independence, popularized by illustrated stories developed by a guy named—yep, you guessed it—Charles Dana Gibson.

But the women and girls (primarily) working long hours to produce the “shirtwaists” were not likely to actually wear them. They were immigrants for the most part, underpaid and overworked. They labored on the Lower East Side of New York City in a sweatshop at 29 Washington Place—specifically on floors seven through ten. On that particular Saturday they were wrapping up their otherwise typical workweek of many more than 55 hours or so, when a small fire started in a scrap bin. One sad hour later, glowing embers bore witness to an event of unspeakable horror. Sirens wailed throughout the city and hundreds of people made their way toward the scene of billowing smoke, “arriving in time to see tangles of bodies, some trailing flames, tumbling from the ninth-floor windows,” as described in the 2003 bestseller by David Von Drehle, Triangle—The Fire That Changed America.

It was a moment as pivotal as it was tragic.

The death toll reached 146, most of them women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. They died from burns, asphyxiation, trauma from a fall, or combinations thereof. In the aftermath of the Triangle fire, the movement toward trade unionism accelerated. Various governmental entities investigated and acted on issues such as low wages, the use of child labor, and employee safety. Eventually, several dozen laws and ordinances were enacted or enhanced, permanently changing the American workplace.

And part of the equation was the development of a strong labor movement in the country. In fact, standing in the crowd watching events unfold on that fateful day 100 years ago was a young lady named Frances Perkins, who would later serve as President Franklin Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary (the first woman in a presidential cabinet). She was famous for her observation that the Triangle fire was “the day the New Deal began.”

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Few Americans today, no matter the political posture or affiliation, would seriously challenge the idea that things as they were in sweatshops in 1911 needed to change. And the next year, 1912, when the Titanic sunk, things changed to make sure ships had more lifeboats. Tragedies have often been the catalyst for constructive change and this has a way of honoring the memory of the fallen.