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A look back at Nixon's 'Checkers' speech and how dogs have influenced politics

It's known as one of the most significant public speeches, which spurred National Dogs in Politics Day on Sept. 23.

In 1952, then-Senator Richard Nixon gave his historic half-hour nationally televised “Checkers” speech where he worked to answer to charges he abused political expense funds. The result of the speech had an unexpected significance in politics still seen over a half-century later.  

As The Atlantic points out, around 60 million people heard the speech on television or over the radio. Nixon was pulling out all the stops to keep his place on General Dwight Eisenhower's national GOP ticket in their race for the White House. The televised speech was historically significant in and of itself at the time for its innovative and efficient communication with voters across the country.

The speech, ranked in a 1999 poll among communication scholars, was seen as one of the most significant American speeches, joining the ranks of famous addresses by Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. 

But, what was perhaps most significant about the speech: In one part, Nixon talks about his family dog, "Checkers."

The address to the nation is said to have spurred a new and lasting political strategy of appealing to identities in culture rather than just financial interests.

Credit: Richard Nixon Foundation
September 23, 1952: Then Senator Richard Nixon gives his historic Checkers speech, purportedly dispelling what he called false rumors at the time, and managing to keep his spot on the General Eisenhower's presidential ticket. He was successful.

In that famous part of the message, Nixon mentions his daughter and when she received a dog, which was given to the family as a gift. 

"A man down in Texas heard Pat [Nixon's wife] 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 [the voter] had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the 6-year-old, named it Checkers.

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."

Soon after, then-Senator Nixon goes on to defend his usage of political funds by appealing to the middle class, saying he didn't agree that "only a rich man should serve his government in the United States Senate or Congress. I don't believe that represents the thinking of the Democratic Party, and I know it doesn't represent the thinking of the Republican Party."

The speech is said to have sparked a new era of dogs in politics and the campaign strategy of appealing to animal lovers to gain acceptance with voters. As National Day's website writes, every Sept. 23rd, National Dogs in Politics Day focuses on the long history of dogs and other pets living in the White House.

Watch the speech below as it aired, and read a full transcript of it here.