Turning Point Presentations: Nixon’s “Checkers” speech

October 7, 2006

During one of my phase-shift transitions between universities and public schools yesterday, I caught a snippet of a commentary that I thought was on Richard Nixon’s 1952 speech that kept him on the ticket with Dwight Eisenhower. Public reaction was reported to be overwhelmingly warm, the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket won the 1952 election, won again in 1956, and Nixon eventually took the presidency for his own in 1968.

Shouldn’t that speech be considered one of the greater presentations of the 20th century, at least? It probably should, especially when we consider what history might have looked like had Nixon left the ticket — no Nixon nomination in 1960 against John Kennedy, no later Nixon presidency, Nixon continuing in the Senate . . . gee, which path is more gloomy?

The Checkers speech does not wear well, I think. Reading it today, I see the origins of smear campaign tactics and diversionary tactics that mar so much of today’s election campaigns and policy discussions.

This all comes up because the transcripts of the famous 1977 interview series newsman/comedian David Frost did with Nixon is the basis for a new play in London, “Frost/Nixon” by Peter Morgan, with Frank Langella playing Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost — a play that is already being made into a movie for Universal Pictures by Academy Award winning director Ron Howard, but after a Broadway run in 2007.

Nixon’s mea culpa answer to Frost on the entirety of the Watergate scandal — “I made so many mistakes” — in the NPR piece voiced by Langella, sounded exactly like Nixon. I mistakenly thought it a recording of the Checkers speech, hearing just a snippet. The Frost/Nixon interviews would probably never have been necessary, had the Checkers speech not been a success. Surely there is a direct line from the Checkers speech to Nixon’s attempt to revive his reputation in the Frost interviews.

Watergate on Broadway, with a movie in the works, should offer good opportunities especially for high school history teachers to bring Watergate to a new generation. Too many people today fail to understand the depth of the damage done to Constitutional institutions in that crisis, and how lucky our nation was to have survived it. There are many lessons there for us in our current Constitutional crisis.

A lesson awaits, also, in the career of David Frost, who crossed from news to comedy and back. Many kids today use comedians as their chief source of political news. We should not be surprised — but let us hope that today’s comedians have as much a sense of public duty as David Frost did in 1977, even while using his public service interview to revive his own career.

Sometimes free markets work spectacularly, don’t they?

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