Political Persuasion #1
Richard Nixon’s surprising rhetorical flair.
I asked yesterday which former US president used a charming tactic to get into office. Was it Obama? Clinton? Kennedy? Nope. Much worse. It’s Nixon.
That’s right. Tricky Dicky.
I’m aware this is the worst kind of social proof. Who wants to use a technique once used by one of the least popular politicians ever?
Because it doesn’t matter who uses such techniques. They don’t discriminate. The more good people that know about them the better.
Anyway, Nixon was in a spot of bother. He was the Republican candidate for Vice President. Nixon had been accused of improprieties relating to a fund established by his backers to reimburse him for his political expenses.
Such a scandal put his place on the Republican ticket in doubt. He flew to Los Angeles and delivered a half-hour address in which he defended himself, attacked his opponents and urged the audience to contact the Republican National Committee (RNC) to tell it whether he should remain on the ticket.
Pretty standard politician stuff so far… Until he started speaking about one particular gift he would never give up, no matter the consequences:
“One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me, too. 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 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 had 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, 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 is an amazing piece of persuasion.
He starts by making it sound like the comment is spontaneous, “One other thing I should probably tell you”.
Then he uses specific visual language: “a little cocker spaniel dog” “in a crate he had sent all the way from Texas” “black and white, spotted,” “and our little girl, Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers.”
You can picture all of those things in your mind. Who would want to take a kid’s beloved pet dog away from them?! What caring father wouldn’t defend his kids in this way?
It doesn’t matter what else you thought of Nixon, on this point, you were on his side. It humanised Nixon, at least for a moment.
Hal Bochin (who wrote a book about Nixon’s rhetoric) suggests that Nixon succeeded at the time because of his use of narrative, spinning a story which resonated with the public:
“[The American people] could identify with the materials of the story—the low-cost apartment, the struggle with the mortgage payment, the parental loans, the lack of life insurance on the wife and children, and even the wife’s cloth coat. By reputation, Nixon was a political fighter and also a family man, and the public admired the father who would not give back the family dog “regardless of what they said about it.”
With The New York Times finding that Nixon’s performance had given the Republican ticket “a shot in the arm” Eisenhower and Nixon swept to victory in November, with the Republicans narrowly taking both Houses of Congress.
According to Nixon biographer Conrad Black, the speech earned Nixon supporters throughout Middle America which he would keep through the rest of his life, and who would continue to defend him after his death.
Here’s a link to the Checkers speech. The important bit starts at 17:47.
Here’s a link to Hunter S. Thompson’s obituary of Nixon. Spoiler: He didn’t much like him. It’s an amazing piece of writing.
I took a lot of the content for this piece from the Wikipedia entry on The Checkers Speech.