Richard Nixon pets Checkers, a dog given to him by a supporter and the namesake of his groundbreaking national television address.
There’s something about September 23 that brings out the dogs among politicians.
On this day in 1952, vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon made a speech that defined his career and set the tone for the next six decades of political communications—and that speech would forever be named for his pet cocker spaniel, Checkers.
Nixon’s speech came eight years to the day after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered what would come to be called his “Fala Speech,” due to its reference to FDR’s beloved Scottie dog, Fala.
The "Checkers Speech" was Nixon’s attempt to save his political life. Though now he’s most remembered as a one-and-a-half-term president, in 1952 Nixon was a rising star in Republican politics—an ambitious Californian who had been tapped to join Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidential ticket after only three years in the U.S. Senate. Shortly after joining Eisenhower, though, Nixon was accused of misusing money from a fund that supporters had set up to pay his political expenses a few years earlier.
With his candidacy at risk, Nixon took to television. In a 30-minute address, he denied any misuse of funds and ticked through the details of his personal finances to show he wasn’t getting rich as a politician. Then he mentioned Checkers.
The dog, he said, was a gift from a supporter in Texas who had heard that Nixon’s daughters wanted to a pet. The girls loved the dog, Nixon said, so they were going to keep it.
Besides clearing the way for the next 20 years of Nixon’s career, the speech made television a medium for politics, and as the Atlantic notes, Nixon’s blunt recitation of his bankbook and his assertion that his wife wore a “respectable Republican cloth coat” (and not the mink she was accused of owning) established a new thread of popular conservatism.
Nixon’s staff always called the address the "Fund Speech,” but Checkers quickly stole the show. Later, Nixon admitted he’d added the bit about his dog to echo FDR’s Fala speech in the previous decade.
FDR loved Fala. The dog is even depicted alongside the president at his memorial in Washington, D.C. Roosevelt’s critics knew he loved the dog, too, and they spread a rumor that the president had left the beloved Fala behind after a visit to the Aleutian Islands, then spent millions sending a Naval destroyer back to fetch the dog. FDR denied this in a speech to the Teamsters, which was quickly dubbed the “Fala Speech.”
FDR and Nixon weren’t the only presidents with a penchant for pooches. George Washington kept hounds, President John Adams had a pet dog named Satan, and President Obama’s dogs are frequently in the news. Here, for Dogs in Politics day, we present some of our favorite photos of presidents and their dogs, plus one of Queen Elizabeth, because no list of powerful people’s pets is complete without one of Her Majesty’s famous corgis.