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The 'Checkers' Speech: A Handbook for Demagogues | The Nation

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The 'Checkers' Speech: A Handbook for Demagogues

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Richard Nixon saved his candidacy with his "Checkers" speech. He also gave the nation a lesson in political demagogy.

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Norman Redlich
Norman Redlich, former dean of New York University Law School, is chairman of the American Jewish Congress’s national...

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The current Supreme Court is so divided on fundamental questions of separation of church and state. that the appointment of one or two conservative Justices could well tip the balance and jettison key historical principles.

Last Wednesday the American people were given a remarkable lesson in political demagoguery. Whatever one may think of Senator Nixon's morals or wisdom, one must admit that in thirty minutes he made a historic contribution to the science of rabble-rousing. Lest his technique be obscured by the political controversy surrounding the whole incident, I will indicate its principles:

1. Pretend to be a poor ordinary man fighting the possessors of inherited wealth. Refer to the fact that the standard-bearer of the opposing party inherited money. Mention your own humble origin and your wife's "cloth coat." Tell the people that poor men like your-self should represent them in Congress.

2. Appeal to people's national origins regardless of how irrelevant it may be. Disclose that your wife's maiden name was Ryan and that the Irish never quit.

3. Attack your opponents as Pro-Communist but don't make the mistake that Joe McCarthy made -- be subtle about it. Remind your audience that the same people who opposed you in the Hiss case are against you now.

4. If you are a veteran, mention it but try to be casual. Discuss the battle stars in an off-hand way but make it clear that you were under enemy fire.

5 Cast doubt on the honesty of the opposing candidates; mention that your opponent's wife is on the federal pay roll. There is nothing dishonest about that, but it sounds bad, especially if the man isn't there to answer it. Keep harping on the fund controlled by the other party's chief candidate, even though it is completely different from your own fund. Twist the facts just enough to arouse suspicion.

6. Appeal to people's sympathy. Pretend to be the honest man who is viciously perse-cuted by smear artists. Plead with the people not to let your enemies take your pet dog away. Tell them that it hurts to bare your soul and your finances in public. Repeat this over and over again so they won't notice the important things you have left unsaid. End by promising you will never stop fighting the crooks and Communists attacking you.

7. Above all, never, never discuss the actual thing for which you were called to task by the American people. Never compare your voting record with the economic interests of those who contributed to your fund. Never raise the question whether it was right to take money from people who have a stake in the way you vote. Create your own ethical standards and then point out how rigidly you adhere to them.

If you do all these things, a great general will laud your courage and you will be flooded with telegrams of sympathy and support. And if the people are really as dumb as you think they are, you may some day be President of the United States.

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