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Nixon's 'Checkers' speech reverberates in 2012 campaign

“What I am going to do — and this is unprecedented in the history of American politics — is give to this television and radio audience a complete financial history. Everything I’ve earned, everything I’ve spent, everything I owe.”  — Richard Nixon, Sept. 23, 1952

Seeking to save his place on the Republican ticket, Richard Nixon — 60 years ago this weekend — took to the airwaves and delivered his “Checkers” speech, one of the most famous  in American political history. It’s most remembered for Nixon’s innovative use of television, using the then relatively young medium to make an extraordinary  pitch for his personal integrity, complete with maudlin references to his wife’s “respectable Republican cloth coat” and his childrens’ cocker spaniel.

But Nixon also did something else in the speech that has eerie relevance to the 2012 election: He invented new rules for financial disclosure that are now playing themselves out in the controversy over Mitt Romney’s tax returns.

At its core, the Nixon “Checkers” speech was all about Nixon’s finances: whether he had personally benefited from an $18,000 “slush fund” set up for him by wealthy California backers to pay his political expenses. The disclosure of the fund, by the (then-liberal) New York Post, rocked the Republican ticket and an icy Dwight Eisenhower was close to dropping Nixon from the ticket.

Nixon “was totally, utterly terrified,” recalled Jeffrey Frank, a former New Yorker editor and author of a forthcoming book, “Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage,” that brilliantly reconstructs the Checkers speech.  “He really had nowhere to go and had no one to turn to really.”

So Nixon did something that had never been done before: He went on national television (booking a half-hour on NBC, right after the popular Milton Berle Show) and decided to disclose every last detail of his finances. Nixon let it all hang out: the cost of his home, the size of his mortgage, the value of his life insurance policy. “I own a 1950 Oldsmobile car,” Nixon said. “We have our furniture. We have no stocks and bonds of any type. ... I owe $4,500 to the Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., with interest four and one half percent.”

He also shrewdly turned the issue around on his Democratic opponents: Illinois governor  Adlai Stevenson and his running mate, Alabama Sen. John Sparkman. Stevenson, he pointed out, was quite wealthy: “I believe it’s fine that a man like Governor Stevenson, who inherited a fortune from his father, can run for president,” he said.

And, he noted, Sparkman had put his wife on his Senate payroll.

“I would suggest that under the circumstances both Mr. Sparkman and Mr. Stevenson should come before the American people, as I have, and make a complete financial statement as to their financial history,” Nixon said, “and if they don’t it will be an admission that they have something to hide.”

In effect, Nixon turned his critics’ attacks on their head: Challenged about his finances, he disclosed  everything. And he slyly stuck it to Stevenson and Sparkman with his challenge that they do the same thing: If you don’t disclose, you must be hiding something.

These new “Nixon” rules would over time take on a life of their own, creating new expectations for what was expected of candidates for national office. “Even though Nixon himself wasn’t trying to set an ethical standard — Nixon was simply trying to save his skin — it became a sort of standard for candidates from then on,” says Frank. (And the bar, of course, would be set even higher by George Romney in 1967 when he released 10 years of tax returns.)

But those rules are now being challenged — and relitigated — in the 2012 race. Romney is the Adlai Stevenson of this race, an extremely wealthy man (worth a quarter of a billion dollars) whose Swiss bank account and Cayman Island holdings have become fodder for his political critics.

In refusing to release more of his tax returns — claiming it would only give his foes the chance “to distort and twist” his finances — Romney is explicitly rejecting the Nixon rules as laid out in the Checkers speech.