Time for a Hillary Clinton “Checkers” Speech?

Photo by Bill McCay/WireImage
Richard Nixon delivers his "Checkers Speech."
Richard Nixon delivers his “Checkers speech.”

On Sept. 23, 1952, Vice Presidential candidate Richard Nixon delivered what came to be known as the “Checkers” speech. A thorny yet redemptive act of sleazily calibrated vaudeville, Nixon captivated nearly 60 million viewers (the largest-ever TV viewership at the time) by stirring the body politic with a stroke of manipulative political alchemy. In his address, broadcast live from The El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles, Nixon artfully employed the national media to fend off allegations that his campaign contributors were subsidizing him politically as well as personally.

During the 30-minute speech, Nixon vigorously defended himself and in turn demonstrated the power of the personal narrative. Whatever the accusations were, he argued, they shouldn’t be misconstrued or jeopardize his place on the Republican ticket with Dwight D. Eisenhower. (The scandal was taking its toll and Eisenhower was close to ditching him.) Nixon also vilified his opponents (a particular skill of Nixon’s) and regaled the TV audience with a homespun tale of his hardscrabble Yorba Linda upbringing and the “modest” compensation of a legislator’s salary. He further detailed his family’s lack of stock ownership, their two-year-old Oldsmobile, their mortgaged home(s) and simple furniture. Finally and perhaps most effectively, Nixon proved that mawkishness is invariably next to godliness in American politics:

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Well, that’s about it. That’s what we have and that’s what we owe. It isn’t very much but Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we’ve got is honestly ours. I should say this — that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.

In an even more maudlin attempt to elicit the viewer’s sympathy, Nixon uttered these words, which would fuel the speech’s enduring notoriety, not to mention its namesake:

We did get something, a gift, after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day we left before 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 had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checks. And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.

Leave it to man’s best friend to energize a politician’s seemingly moribund prospects. As it happened, Nixon remained on the ticket with Eisenhower, and they won a sweeping majority six weeks later. After eight years as Ike’s vice president, Nixon was resurrected in 1968 after a long exile, following his wafer-thin loss of the presidency to Kennedy in 1960 and Pat Brown routing him in the 1962 California gubernatorial campaign.

Should 2016 turn out to be the year Hillary Clinton finally ends up as the Democratic Party’s standard bearer, she may need more than a “Checkers” speech to combat what are her early but nevertheless ham-handed attempts at listening to the vox populi:

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Of course, directly comparing Nixon’s situation to Clinton’s is less apt than cautionary. Where Nixon’s feigning the common touch often registered as brazenly vulgar, if not nefarious, Clinton’s comments about being “dead broke” when she and Bill exited the White House correctly smacked most observers as inauthentic. She subsequently observed that she didn’t belong to the “truly well-off,” a maladroit distinction that doesn’t exactly qualify as a bragging right in our economically anxious age.

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But the noisy fallout that resulted from Clinton’s faux pas is not sexism, as some have argued. After all, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia — long a VIP member of Clintonworld — helped to secure the mortgage on their Chappaqua home when the first family was drowning in post-presidential legal debt. Such “sugar daddy” interventions are hardly privileges of the “forgotten middle class” that catapulted Bill Clinton to the White House more than 20 years ago. Despite Nixon’s camera-ready protestations, the largesse that his Southern California backers funneled to him, though not illegal, were hardly commensurate with his “common man” posturing.

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Whether championing the aristocrat or the farmer, politicians from both parties have seen their attempts at appearing “everyday” often undermined by their own ungainliness. For evidence, see Mitt Romney, who casually alluded to his wife having “a couple of Cadillacs” (and also a little speech about the 47 percent); see George H.W. Bush marveling at a supermarket scanner. In one of the tastier bon mots to ever appear in a political speech, the late former governor of Texas, Ann Richards, tartly referred to Bush as “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

Rhetorical inelegance in politics is inevitably met with consternation. Indeed, there’s a cognitive dissonance that afflicts political leaders who mouth populist platitudes from their own gilded cage. Such episodes also reveal a nettlesome, potentially disastrous paradigm when it comes to how candidates (or potential candidates) should address voters in our own financially anemic era. And despite our nation’s ideological divide, the U.S. government has become so polluted with corporate money that it often feels like a gigantic Xanadu for lobbyists. While the right often sounds lobotomized with terms like “legitimate rape” or gaffes like the “47 percent who believe they are victims,” the left shouldn’t be inoculated from criticism that progressive ideals are as susceptible to big-money corruption as conservative ideals. In the latest Pew survey, 78% of Americans think too much power is held by too few companies, while 62% believe our economic system favors only the powerful. Even younger, right-leaning voters feel the system is rigged, with nearly 70% thinking power is concentrated in the hands of the few.

Hillary Clinton’s likely candidacy will most certainly need a macro-argument on the country’s persistent inequality which, fairly or not, hasn’t been mitigated in the Obama years, at least thus far. The 2016 election, more than any that has preceded it, will likely turn less on the economy as a whole but on the hopelessness and frustration that pernicious inequality has wrought. Whatever rarified air she may breathe, Clinton can hardly afford to be viewed as a progressive plutocrat, a quasi-spiritual descendant of “limousine liberalism.” Nor can she settle into the fiscally cautious, culturally tolerant tranche that both Obama and her husband before him safely occupied. Despite two decades in the public sphere that saw her as an able tactician as a senator and a much-lauded stint as America’s top diplomat, a skeptical electorate will still ask the question: What does Hillary stand for, anyway? Her formidable intellect notwithstanding, she has never possessed the silver-tongued charm of Bill or the charismatic confidence of Obama; she’s long been dogged by questions about whether she is a centrist or a liberal, a hawk or a dove. The latter question remains especially muddled by her vote for the Iraq War, which she now admits was an error.

As Clinton-era Secretary of Labor Robert Reich contends:

…as the middle class shrinks and distrust of the establishment grows, a new Democratic strategy for the downwardly mobile may be both necessary and inevitable. If she runs, Hillary may have to take that gamble.

Indeed, as the troglodyte right continues to pine for Hoover-era America, Hillary will be afforded the opportunity not to simply break the gender barrier but to change the conversation. Since the Reagan ascendancy, the institution of government has been the whipping boy and the once-prosperous American fabric has the lashes to prove it. There”s a fly in the ointment of the “American Dream,” and Hillary’s recent stumbles will be likely overshadowed by the larger question of her vision. American democracy deserves a robust argument on this question, but we can’t have an argument about the viability of Hillary until we all know what it is she’s actually arguing about.

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