1 Sep 2001 0 comments. tbs.pm/1661
On September 23, 1952, Richard Milhous Nixon, Eisenhower’s young running mate, appeared on television in the United States to make an important point about the rumors of corruption that already dogged his career.
Whilst television would not make his career in the way of John F Kennedy, nor ruin it as with Adlai Stevenson, it would be important to the charting of his candidacies, vice-presidency and finally presidency and downfall.
All would be played out on television, making him the first politician to be a television politician.
Nixon had first become a congressman in 1947 and his reputation as a political fixer and his ability to outmaneuver opponents by fair means or foul saw him climb the political tree very quickly.
By 1950 he was running as a senator, having made his name as a rabid anticommunist during the witch-hunts of the House un-American Activities Committee, where his dogged prosecution of alleged spy Alger Hiss was shown on television.
He painted his opponents as communist sympathizers, playing on domestic paranoia of the time, and won his Senate seat.
After less than a year and a half in the Senate, he was approached by former General Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, who was running for the Republican nomination for the 1952 Presidential elections. Eisenhower had never liked Nixon, preferring a more honest politics than Nixon had so far played.
But he needed someone to hand him Californian votes – both in the primaries and in the election itself. Eisenhower also needed a man who would be willing to get dirty in the presidential campaign, someone who could fling mud at his opponents, but not allow any to land on Ike himself. In return for swinging the Californian representatives behind him, Nixon was offered the vice-presidency. He accepted.
Rumors of dirty dealings had always clung to him, but Nixon had always managed to keep substantive proof of corruption out of the media. But, once selected as Eisenhower’s running mate, Nixon moved from the world of local politics to that of national, and thus began to attract the attention of investigative reporters in the nation’s larger newspapers.
By digging, they found that a committee of “friends” – industrialists and interested parties with something to gain from having a pet senator – had started a fund for Nixon.
Whilst the average donation was only $240, and the total spent from the fund by the senator and his family came to under $18000, it was enough to potentially destroy him. By adding rumors that the money had been spent on fur coats for his wife Pat and other symbols of graft, the pressmen were assured of ending his candidacy.
At first it appears that Nixon hesitated about what to do. Eisenhower told him to make a clean breast of things, getting into the open everything to do with the scandal and thus burying it. Nixon agreed, and decided – with the newspapers largely against him – to use television, at that point right at the start of its large climb to dominance in the States.
He called a television press conference, where he answered each of the allegations of corruption the newspapers had accused him of. To an estimated audience of 60 million people, he presented a warm, open, honest face, before pulling out his coup de grace.
He announced “We did get something – a gift – after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got… a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he sent all the way from Texas.
“Black and white spotted. And our little girl, Tricia, the six-year-old, named it Checkers. And you know the kids love that dog and I just want to say this right now – that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.”
It was a masterstroke. By turning the story from that of slush funds into a story about a cute puppy, and by hinting that all the newspapers wanted was to take that puppy away from a six-year-old girl, he captured the hearts of those viewing. Eisenhower and Nixon won by a landslide.
The rest of Nixon’s career was played out on television. His unsuccessful run for the presidency in 1960 was not helped when his haggard looks and 5 o’clock shadow on television were no match for the youthful Jack Kennedy – JFK wore make up, but Nixon was advised not to. TV pictures of the Vietnam War dogged him as much as his predecessor and blighted his first term following his eventual election in 1968.
His downfall was thanks to newspaper investigation, this time into his involvement in the burglary of his opponents campaign headquarters in the Watergate Hotel, but was played out on television again – his speech resigning the presidency on the eve of impeachment was shown live nationally, as was his climb into the official helicopter that took him away from the White House.
So far, no American president has been directly brought down by television. Nixon’s successor Ford and the Carter and Bush administrations were ended at the ballot box partially thanks to each president’s poor televisual appearance opposite their opponent – although Ronald Regan’s presidency was marked by how well he performed on the small screen compared to off.
The closest we’ve ever come to television actually bringing down a president was perhaps Bill Clinton, seen denying his sexual indiscretions, then humiliatingly having to admit them later, both on TV.
But by this time, the American population, perhaps thanks to the downfall of Nixon through corruption almost three decades earlier, had lost interest in more minor, sexual, indiscretions in their Chief Executives, and the majority backed the popular president despite the power of television to humble him.