John McCain's "Checkers" Speech

It was the kind of press conference reporters show up for even when they're not working.

They put on their best suits and get their shoes shined. They make sure they have fresh batteries in their tape recorders.

Senator John McCain had promised to give his version of Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech. His political career was on the line. He would meet the press in a basement conference room of the downtown Sheraton Hotel.

The place was packed. Even the editorial writers from the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette emerged from their bunkers, two blocks away, to make rare public appearances.

But despite the pressure caused by the big turnout, the advantage was always McCain's.

He held the high cards. The reporters were actually at a disadvantage. To badger a United States senator in this forum would appear churlish. McCain's strategy took that into account. If his version of the story went unchallenged, his side of the story would make it for both the television sound bites and the live radio coverage. And that's exactly how it turned out.

Let's consider the McCain story for a bit.

His success has two elements. First, of course, is the fact that he was a prisoner of war for six years during the Vietnam War. Everything proceeds from that. He is like a man who wins the lottery. Without his war record, McCain would be a political nonentity.

The other, much less important element, is that he has an engaging personality and the ability to appear self-deprecating. Without the war record this would perhaps be sufficient enough for a seat on the town council. These assets are counterbalanced by the fact that he is clearly duplicitous and a man who is willing to shade the truth.

But in the world of politics, McCain's dark side merely adds to his advantage.

By comparing himself to Nixon, McCain was unwittingly admitting not only his guilt but his overweening ambition for national office.

Nixon's speech on national television in the 1952 presidential campaign remains a classic of the artful politician at work. We have all seen it rerun many times.

Like McCain, Nixon was accused of taking funds from power brokers. He was running for vice president on Dwight Eisenhower's ticket at the time. The speech would either save him or result in his being removed from the ticket.

"I did get a gift," Nixon said. "A little cocker spaniel dog . . . and our little girl, Tricia, the six-year-old, named it Checkers . . . Pat and I have satisfaction that every dime that we've got is honestly ours.

"I should say this--that Pat doesn't have a mink coat, but she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat."

Nixon's answer was cloying and childish. And it didn't really address the charges. But the reaction to his speech was one of overwhelming approval. The public went for a man who had a dog named Checkers and a wife with a "respectable Republican cloth coat."

The secret of Nixon's escape is simple. Any politician willing to stand up and prevaricate sincerely can be assured of carrying the day.

This is exactly how McCain handled his crisis last week. Surely, he understands the political rule that a sincere attitude is 90 percent of the battle.

A United States senator who admits he made a mistake can win over his critics every time. In the case of McCain, the public is caught up by a special emotional problem. They don't want to believe that the man they've honored as a war hero can also be a cheap and conniving political climber.

We do not give up our heroes so easily.

McCain came to his meeting with the press armed with a seven-page written statement. He insisted on reading it first.

His reason was simple. The more McCain talked the less film there would be of him answering embarrassing questions. And given the time constraints, most television stations would run portions of McCain's prepared speech rather than his jousting with reporters.

"I want to clear the air," McCain began.

"I am not going to stand here and tell you that everything I have done is above reproach and without fault . . . I freely admit my errors . . . " This was very clever. Having told everyone he was admitting his errors, he then gave his transgressions such an artful spin that McCain's dishonesty appeared to be the most normal behavior imaginable.

McCain is nothing if not an accomplished fabulist. If you don't watch the thread carefully, you will be convinced by him that he really isn't a greedy opportunist after all.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Fitzpatrick