On this day in 1973, President Richard Nixon famously tells a room full of reporters: “I am not a crook.”
The word “crook” fell harshly on his listeners’ ears. No President had ever uttered such a phrase before, even when people wondered about the honesty of an administration. “[O]ne would never hear a Kennedy say, ‘I’m not a crook,’” author Mark Feeney observes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the phrase became defining. The Watergate scandal had been simmering for months, and now it began to seem that the President really was a crook.
Was Nixon surprised that his vehement denials met with such an outcome? After all, his early political career had been defined by a very similar speech—but that other, earlier speech had been wildly successful. Believe it or not, some commentators even rank his 1952 “Checkers speech” as one of the most important American speeches in the 20th Century.
But what was the Checkers speech?
In 1952, then-vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon was facing allegations that he was using a political fund for inappropriate purposes. The scandal was growing, and some even began to question whether Nixon should be removed from the Republican ticket. Nixon responded to the situation by delivering a thirty-minute television address.
The speech became memorable because of one particular passage. Nixon denied receiving anything inappropriate, but he confessed to receiving one gift: a dog. A supporter had heard that the Nixon children wanted one.
“It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas,” Nixon explained. “Black and white spotted. And our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
The moment seemed honest (and human), and it won people over. Nixon would not only stay on the ticket, but he and Dwight Eisenhower would go on to be elected in a landslide in November 1952.
One Nixon speechwriter later described the effect of that speech. “It marked the beginning of the television age in American politics,” Lee Huebner wrote. “It also salvaged Nixon’s career, plucking a last-second success from the jaws of abject humiliation, and profoundly shaped Nixon’s personal and professional outlook, convincing him that television was a way to do an end-run around the press and the political ‘establishment.’”
If the Checkers speech had never happened, would Nixon have felt confident enough to face the press in front of cameras as he did during the Watergate scandal? Is it possible that the words, “I am not a crook,” would never have been uttered?
We’ll never know. Instead, Nixon gave a speech that made an already bad situation worse, and his words have since become a punchline to many a joke.
Nixon resigned from the presidency less than a year later, in August 1974.
Carroll Kilpatrick, Nixon Tells Editors, “I’m Not a Crook” (Wash. Post, Nov. 18, 1973)
Lee Huebner, The Checkers Speech After 60 Years (The Atlantic; Sept. 22, 2012)
Mark Feeney, Nixon at the Movies: A Book about Belief (2004)
Richard Nixon addresses reporters (Nov. 17, 1973)
Stanley I. Kutler, Watergate: A Brief History with Documents (2009)