On September 23rd in 1952, Senator Richard Nixon appeared on the air to deliver what would come to be known, much to his annoyance, as the Checkers Speech. Checkers, a black and white cocker spaniel, was the Nixon’s family dog.
Nixon was a vying for a place as Eisenhower’s running-mate, when his opponents dug up a potential scandal—a relatively flimsy claim that he had used some of his campaign funds for personal use. As part of this defense, he admits in the speech that he did receive one gift, “a little cocker spaniel dog, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.”
The personal and emotional nature of the speech was something novel in politics at the time and audiences loved it. “By one count”, writes Lee Huebner in The Atlantic, “there were some four million responses to the speech—virtually all of them pro-Nixon.” For many, this speech was one of the first times they saw a candidates family, pets and all, become part of the political process. “After ‘Checkers’”, Huebner writes, “families would become central participants in a new political dramaturgy.”
Dogs have been a part of presidential life right from the beginning. According the the Mount Vernon estate, George Washington kept a huge variety of dog breeds, including four French hounds: Tipsy, Mopsey, Truelove, and Ragman. Sunny and Bo, Barack Obama’s two Portuguese water dogs, are the two current First Dogs in the White House.