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When Blue-collar Whites Turned Republican

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Liberals strain to understand why so many blue-collar whites have made their home in the Republican Party. Yes, the GOP better connects with this group on social and lifestyle levels. Still, with working people under so much economic strain these days, it seems odd that they'd let a culture war centered on emotion trump their bread-and-butter concerns.

When did this all begin? A good answer is 60 years ago, when a Republican congressman named Richard Nixon gave the "Checkers speech."

The address "foreshadowed the emergence of a new conservative populism in America, emphasizing appeals to social and cultural 'identity' rather than economic interest," Lee Huebner, a speechwriter in the Nixon White House, writes. Later publisher of The International Herald Tribune, Huebner explains the power and historic significance of the Checkers speech in an article appearing on theAtlantic.com.

Until Sept. 23, 1952, the Democratic Party had reigned as the undisputed workers' champion for bargaining rights, a minimum wage, Social Security and the like. Nixon's purpose in giving the speech was not to switch partisan loyalties but to save his political hide. Charges that he had illegally used a donors fund for traveling had endangered his quest to become Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's vice presidential running mate. A New York Post headline at the time read, "Secret Rich Men's Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary."

The allegations were almost surely false. Furthermore, Nixon's fund was similar to one used by the Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson (who didn't join the pile-on). Eisenhower's advisers, meanwhile, perhaps half believing the charges and never having warmed to Nixon's hatchet-man ways, cruelly left him to sink or swim on his own. The experience, Huebner told me, had "scarred President Nixon so deeply."

So Nixon decided to bypass the print media he deemed hostile and directly address the nation through the powerful new medium of television. He bought 30 minutes of airtime right after the popular "Milton Berle Show," then went on to make political and television history. A survey of leading communications scholars ranked this as the sixth-most important American speech of the 20th century.

In what critics called a "financial striptease," Nixon revealed every detail of his humble holdings. "It isn't very much," he said, "but Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we have got is honestly ours." Pat didn't wear mink, he famously noted, but "a respectable Republican cloth coat."

He then made a corny vow to keep one gift. Someone had sent "a little cocker spaniel dog" that his daughter named Checkers. "Regardless of what they say about it," he said, "we're going to keep it." Hence the "Checkers" tag.

When Nixon was done, the switchboards lit up. An estimated 4 million people called or wrote, nearly all in favor of Nixon. Eisenhower embraced him.

"He accomplished the goal by identifying himself not only with the circumstances of 'ordinary' Americans," Huebner writes, "but also with their resentments of the fancy and facile elite." The New Deal Democratic coalition faced its doom.

I asked Huebner whether Nixon later referred to the speech. "I am struck by the fact that the Nixon people rarely talked about the Checkers speech -- President Nixon included," he responded. It was a harsh memory, in part because of the "Checkers" label, which seemed to reduce the effort to marketing spin. The Nixon Library and Nixon Foundation have always called it the "Fund" speech.

Can Democrats recapture the blue-collar hearts they began losing 60 years ago? Perhaps. The very real declining fortunes of whites without college degrees could again make economic security their prime concern. Nothing stays the same.

COPYRIGHT 2012 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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