(Part I of Three Parts. See note at bottom as well.)
For nearly 70 years, Cleveland has played a pivotal role in who wins election to the office of President of the United States. That will be the case again just six days from now, when President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion.
Perhaps lesser known, but critically important, was a political appearance which General Dwight D. Eisenhower made in Cleveland almost 70 years ago to the day, on September 23, 1952. It was a sideshow to the main show that evening, a first-of-its-kind live televised political address which became known in history as the “Checkers Speech.”
Eisenhower was campaigning for president that year on a platform to “Clean up the mess in Washington.” A very popular war hero, many felt that Eisenhower had a huge advantage over his Democratic opponent, Illinois Senator Adlai Stevenson.
But there was an apparent weakness for the Republicans that year in the form of alleged illegalities which Eisenhower’s VP nominee, then-Senator Richard Nixon, had done. Nixon had set up a campaign fund in 1950, separate from his political campaign, and used the proceeds to cover campaign-related transportation and hotel expenses to California, Christmas card mailings, and other non-governmental expenses related to campaigning for office after his election. “Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary” read a headline in the New York Post on September 18, 1952. Controversy raged as the story kicked off days of political attacks against Nixon. There were calls in both parties for Nixon to remove himself from the ticket.
Nixon chose to fight back, and he employed a novel way to do it. He got the Republican National Committee (RNC) to provide $75,000 to purchase 30 minutes of national television time on NBC. Nixon used it to give what has become known in political history as that “Checkers Speech.” You can see more about this speech, including links to portions of it, below.
Campaigning in the West that day, Nixon wrote his speech throughout the day and delivered it at El Capitan Theater, an NBC television studio in Hollywood. General Eisenhower was in Cleveland that evening. His campaign had scheduled him to give a speech on inflation in the Public Auditorium downtown, and 15,000 people crammed into the building to hear and see him. More than 2,000 miles southwest of Cleveland, Nixon’s political future hung in the balance that night.
On live television, Nixon devoted the first part of his speech to defending and explaining the separate campaign fund. He told a story of how a supporter in Texas had shipped a black-and-white cocker spaniel dog to the Nixon family, and how his six-year-old daughter Tricia had named the dog Checkers. “And you know the kids, like all kids, love the dog and … regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it,” he said.
In the second part of the speech, Nixon attacked his critics. He pointed out that Senator Stevenson had a similar type of fund, and his counterpart – Democratic VP Nominee Sen. John Sparkman — had his wife on his Congressional payroll. He finished the address with a plea for viewers to contact the Republican National Committee and let it know whether Nixon should remain on the ticket. Finally, he praised General Eisenhower as his allotted time expired and NBC ended the telecast. “And remember, folks, Eisenhower is a great man, believe me. He’s a great man, and a vote for Eisenhower is a vote for what’s good for America.”
More than 60 million Americans watched or heard the broadcast “Checkers” speech that night. At that time, it was the largest audience for a television program in the then-new medium’s history. The speech also proved to everyone that television had the ability to shape and mold the public’s political opinions.
In Cleveland, Eisenhower delayed giving his own speech so that Nixon’s address could be broadcast (audio only) into the crowd at the Public Auditorium. Eisenhower, his wife Mamie, and others in the General’s inner circle viewed Nixon’s speech from a TV in the business office there. Eisenhower was cool as he watched. Mamie Eisenhower wept at it. Others cried also. Reaction was electric. Men and women openly cried as they heard Nixon’s voice and story. Eisenhower had to rewrite his planned speech for the evening.
Congressman George Bender (R-23, from Chagrin Falls) who was emcee for the evening, asked the crowd the address, “Are you in favor of Nixon?” The audience “went wild, screaming, whistling, and leaping from their seats,” Newsweek magazine reported.
Although he hadn’t told the crowd in Cleveland that night, Eisenhower’s campaign had already done both legal and accounting research on the Nixon’s campaign fund. It showed that neither the fund nor Nixon had done anything illegal, and in fact dozens of Senators and Congressmen had established similar funds for the same purposes.
In front of the crowd at Public Auditorium, Eisenhower praised his running mate “Tonight, I saw an example of courage,” he said. “I have seen many brave men in tough situations. I have never seen any come through in better fashion than Senator Nixon did tonight…”
Nixon had asked the public to let the Republican National Committee know whether he should remain on the ticket. According to the RNC, more than four million letters, telegrams, and phone calls came pouring into their offices, running 75 to 1 in Nixon’s favor.
In the aftermath, Richard Nixon kept his VP place on the ticket. The Eisenhower-Nixon Republicans outpolled Stevenson and Sparkman by 6 million popular votes, and carried 39 states and 442 electoral votes.
Eisenhower’s viewing of the speech in Cleveland, and the overwhelmingly supportive reaction of the crowd in the audience at the Public Auditorium that night contributed to Nixon’s overcoming the attacks, and to his election as Vice President.
Ohio has been a bellwether state in presidential elections for more than 150 years. Since 1860 (39 presidential elections), the winner of Ohio’s electoral votes has won the presidency 35 times, and also won every presidential election since 1964. No Republican candidate has ever won the Presidency without winning Ohio.
Cleveland/NE Ohio is the largest media market in the state, and the 19th largest in the U.S. So it’s no surprise that the road to the White House frequently passes through Cleveland, and will do so again in 2020.
Watch Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” Speech here:
Here’s the transcript of the speech:
NOTE: Eye on Cleveland’s John Kerezy, Associate Professor of Media and Journalism Studies, wrote this article. Professor Kerezy has also been a high school debate and speech coach for the past 12 years, has had 10 Academic All Americans in debate and speech, and advanced 10 National Qualifiers to the National Speech and Debate Association’s National Tournament in debate. If you are seeking someone for commentary on the upcoming first 2020 Presidential Debate in Cleveland, email him at email@example.com or call 216-987-5040.