Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952

Overview

 

It all started with some businessmen bankrolling Richard Nixon to become a "salesman against socialization." But in this precursor to current campaign finance scandals, Nixon had some explaining to do to keep his place on Eisenhower’s Republican ticket, so he took to the airwavess. In making his speech, Nixon left behind lines about a "Republican cloth coat" and a black and white cocker spaniel named "Checkers." The speech saved and bolstered Nixon’s political career and ...

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Overview

 

It all started with some businessmen bankrolling Richard Nixon to become a "salesman against socialization." But in this precursor to current campaign finance scandals, Nixon had some explaining to do to keep his place on Eisenhower’s Republican ticket, so he took to the airwavess. In making his speech, Nixon left behind lines about a "Republican cloth coat" and a black and white cocker spaniel named "Checkers." The speech saved and bolstered Nixon’s political career and set the tone for the 1952 campaign.

Just Plain Dick is political history and more. It’s the story of a young man nearing a nervous breakdown and staging a political comeback. While the narrative focuses tightly, almost cinematically, on the 1952 election cycle—from the spring primary season to the summer conventions, and then to the allegations against Nixon through to the speech in September and finally the election in November—Mattson also provides a broad-stroke depiction of American politics and culture during the Cold War.

With publication scheduled during the 2012 election season, readers will see Nixon’s contribution to current campaign styles. Here is a story of phony populism, a hatred of elites (tagged "eggheads" back then), and emotionally charged appeals erasing a rational assessment of a politician’s qualifications. An entertaining and suspenseful read, Just Plain Dick is ideal election context for political junkies and those fascinated with 1950s America.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Mattson’s excellent book is a timely companion to the current election season.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Mattson’s portrait of a crusading, emotional Nixon on the verge of victory colors in all the campaign’s background details, including relevant pop culture detours and digressions, from Hedda Hopper and Lucille Ball to the hole in Adlai Stevenson’s shoe.” —Publishers Weekly

“Mattson’s book will appeal to historians, politicians, politics buffs, and those interested in the impact of television on the electorate.” —Library Journal

“Mattson, the author of six fine books on politics and intellectual history, contends that the speech transformed not only the 1952 election but also American political culture... Eisenhower and Nixon’s 1952 campaign was an important contributor to unfortunate development[s for which] we are still paying the price... today.” —Boston Globe

Library Journal
Television probably doomed Vice President Richard Nixon's 1960 presidential bid, as he could not match the telegenic appeal of young, handsome John F. Kennedy. Those who watched the first of their four televised debates overwhelmingly believed Kennedy had won, though those who listened on the radio thought Nixon was the clear winner. Eight years earlier, however, Nixon had used the brand-new medium of television to save his vice presidential campaign. His September 1952 "Checkers Speech"—so called because he referred to his family's dog in an effort to prove his credentials as a common man—was watched by 60 million people. Mattson (contemporary history, Ohio Univ., Rebels All!: A Short History of the Conservative Mind in Postwar America) offers a detailed, behind-the-scenes account of the political maneuvering leading up to that speech, in which Nixon decided to come clean about a slush fund scandal while maligning his political opponents for a "cover-up" of similar transgressions. Ironically, 22 years later, Nixon's Watergate cover-up led to his resignation from the presidency. VERDICT Mattson's book will appeal to historians, politicians, politics buffs, and those interested in the impact of television on the electorate.—Robert Bruce Slater, Stroudsburg, PA
Kirkus Reviews
A cocker spaniel and a plain cloth coat become emblems of the paranoid-style right-wing politics of the 1950s, courtesy of one Richard Milhous Nixon. The time is 1952. As Mattson (History/Ohio Univ.; "What the Heck Are You Up to, Mr. President?": Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country, 2009, etc.) opens his narrative, Nixon is pitching a fit: "Goddamn bastards want me out. They want to sack my political career. They don't have much on me, but they'll use what they have. That's how they play, those sluggers and smear boys in the liberal press." What they had was slender evidence that Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower's running mate, had been handed some thousands of dollars to help his cause. Nixon's defense was the famous "Checkers speech," which forms the centerpiece of Mattson's account. But rather than take Nixon's strained words about his frugality and Pat's wifely virtues at face value, Mattson neatly deconstructs the speech, which "started off a bit rough" but developed into a work of "political genius," showing how Nixon used it to set the notion of himself as a plain man in a land of plain men in a time when claims of heroism were all around--thus distinguishing himself not just from opponent Adlai Stevenson, that famed egghead, but also from Eisenhower himself, chief general during a war in which Nixon was middle management in the Pacific. "The speech," writes Mattson, "saved Nixon's career by making him into a man of the people, a ‘real' American--a term that rang throughout the letters and telegrams that poured in for him." By implication, Stevenson and even Eisenhower weren't real Americans, thus helping establish the kind of lowest-common-denominator politics that has held sway ever since. In that sense--and given the talk of "real" American-ness that persists today--Mattson's excellent book is a timely companion to the current election season. The question is: Who's playing Nixon?
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608198122
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 9/18/2012
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Mattson is the Connor Study Professor of Contemporary History at Ohio University. He is the author of Rebels All!, When America Was Great, Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century, Intellectuals in Action, and "What the Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?" Mattson writes for the American Prospect, Dissent, the Nation, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and many other publications.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Portrait of the Young Political Artist as Madman (from the Inner Cranium to History) 1

Chapter 1 Anxieties… of a Cold War Spring and an "Inside Dopester" 13

Chapter 2 A Summer of "the Great Salesroom" 49

Chapter 3 "A Wonderful Guy"? 89

Chapter 4 "Chin Up" 130

Chapter 5 "America Has Taken Dick Nixon to Its Heart" 161

Conclusion: The Dog That Bit 202

Acknowledgments 213

Bibliographic Notes 215

Notes 219

Index 249

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