To see how other politicians have weathered personal calamity, let’s revisit two crises in 20th-century America: Checkers and Chappaquiddick.
John Tory has said goodbye but has not left, as if, at some level, he hopes for a groundswell of support to remain mayor of Toronto. That’s unlikely to happen, but to see how other politicians have weathered personal calamity, he might revisit a pair of crises in 20th-century America called Checkers and Chappaquiddick.
Both involved politicians under enormous pressure to resign. In response, each gave theatrical speeches in which he made an emotional appeal to voters, won sympathy and saved his career.
The first was Richard Nixon in 1952. The second was Edward Kennedy in 1969. Today, they show how a wily practitioner can survive scandal with a shrewd understanding of human nature and a tidy manipulation of public opinion.
In August 1952, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower made Sen. Nixon of California his vice-presidential nominee. In September, as Nixon was on a whistle-stop tour, the New York Post reported that Nixon had benefited personally from a fund that wealthy supporters had created to finance his ambitions.
Desperate to convince a wavering Eisenhower and a skeptical public, Nixon responded directly because “my honesty and integrity has been questioned.” The Republican Party bought a half-hour on national television on Sept. 23 for what became known as Nixon’s “Checkers Speech.”
It’s political theatre — a declaration of innocence, a denial of wrongdoing (supported by an auditor’s report), a disclosure of his financial holdings, an attack on the Democrats. Its strength, though, is its unabashed mawkishness.
“Pat (Nixon’s wife) doesn’t have a mink coat,” said Nixon. “But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything.”
The showstopper was Nixon’s reference to the little cocker spaniel, black-and-white and spotted, given to his daughters and named 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 are going to keep it.” Determined to stay (“I don’t believe that I ought to quit, because I am not a quitter,”) he asked the party to decide his future, guided by the people. Four million telegrams flooded party headquarters, overwhelmingly in his favour. Eisenhower kept Nixon and they won easily in November.
Sen. Kennedy of Massachusetts faced a different test of self-preservation when he was in an automobile accident on the island of Chappaquiddick in Massachusetts. Mary Jo Kopechne, a former Kennedy campaign worker, drowned in the accident.
While Nixon professed innocence, Kennedy admitted guilt (leaving the scene of the accident) and accepted the penalty. He didn’t resign. On July 25, Kennedy went on television. He denied any “immoral conduct” with Kopechne, recalling “the inexplicable, inconsistent and inconclusive things I said and did,” and admitting “grief, fear, doubt, exhaustion, panic, confusion and shock.”
He accepted “why some might think it right for me to resign. For me, this will be a difficult decision to make.” Then he appealed to the people “to think this through with me,” seeking their advice and prayers.
Invoking his brother, John F. Kennedy, he hoped “to have the courage to make the right decision.” A sympathetic politician called it “a Checker’s speech with class.”
Like Nixon, Kennedy appealed to the public to save him. And like with Nixon, they did. A flood of telegrams persuaded him to stay on, which was surely his expectation.
In both cases there was guile, artifice and sentimentality. Nixon didn’t tell the whole truth about the fund. Historians say he favoured its donors and enjoyed its benefits. Interestingly, he used “smear” repeatedly in his speech, but he was already a master of the politics of destruction in his campaigns. As president, later, his deceit and criminality emerged during Watergate. And he would resign his office.
Kennedy was re-elected overwhelmingly to the Senate in 1970. He became one of the longest-serving senators in history, the enduring “liberal lion.” But as Nixon could never escape Checkers, Kennedy could never escape Chappaquiddick. He ran unsuccessfully for president.
Still, while Nixon died a disgraced president, Kennedy was hailed, on his death, as the greatest legislator of his generation.
Andrew Cohen is a journalist, a professor at Carleton University and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
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