I got a whole new angle on Richard Nixon last week from a woman who went to Whittier High School and College with him.
“And back then he was ALL RIGHT,” said Allie Darling Lowe, 92 going on 70. (Allie, a Quaker, would come to despise everything Nixon came to stand for.)
Allie’s father was a CPA in Whittier. He helped Nixon get started in law and politics when he came back to town after World War II. Allie’s brother was threatened during Nixon’s notorious U.S. Senate campaign against Helen Douglass. Her father made Nixon back off.
And her father introduced Nixon to the local oilmen who elected him to Congress in 1946, and put together the fund that led to the famous “Checkers speech” in 1952.
Nixon had a sweetheart for five years in high school and college, the daughter of the local police chief. He wanted to become engaged before he left for law school, so he told the girl to buy herself a ring and he’d pay her back when he could. She dumped him for a guy who could afford a ring, who even gave her a good life after the wedding.
Thelma Ryan (who became Pat Nixon) was teaching commercial English at the high school when Nixon started practicing law in Whittier. She was an orphan who had raised two young siblings with nothing, and put herself through school doing any job she could get: typing, modeling for a department store. She needed more school to qualify to teach academic English, but she needed this job to raise the money.
Pat started telling people that she wanted a list of four eligible men with a future, and she would marry one of them. Allie, who came from Quaker values and hearty pioneer stock, thought Pat was “a grabber, a clinger, and a climber.”
Pat was told that Dick Nixon was very bright and hardworking. He liked to work at the local community theater, and she could meet him by volunteering there. A few weeks later she announced in the faculty lounge, “Dick Nixon’s a stuffed shirt, but he’s going places and I’m going with him.”
A group of local businessmen, who made a lot of money quickly in oil, wanted a congressman from Whittier who would protect their oil depletion allowance, a 15 percent tax write-off for the value their wells lost every year because the owners had taken the oil out, sold it, and could not replace it.
Nixon was the choice, and he got elected in 1946. John F. Kennedy, another returning Navy veteran, won his first term in Congress the same year. Unlike JFK, Nixon did not have any money to cover the extra expenses congressmen face: two homes, the need to go places and have your wife look a certain way, some entertaining of your own, travel to the home district. He was in his 30s with two small children and a wife who liked clothing.
In those days, Congressmen had many legal ways to make extra money. They could put their wives on the government payroll, maintain partnerships in law, real estate, or insurance firms, accept lecture fees, and keep a hand in a business,
Nixon did none of that. He just voted for the depletion allowance, with all the congressmen from oil states, and the Whittier oilmen put together a fund to help with his expenses. In his eyes, it was no different from Michigan congressmen supporting the auto industry, or Iowa congressmen supporting farm subsides. They were all serving the folks back home.
He ran for U.S. Senate as a well known Red-baiter in an ugly campaign that touched Allie’s family again. Nixon’s people told Allie’s brother to support Nixon or else they would take all his rich clients away. “I can’t do that,” he said. “I’m not going to do much in the campaign, but Helen and I were in law school together and she’s a friend.” Then, he called his father.
Mr. Darling got on the phone to Nixon himself, who said that was just his agents. “Well, you’d better get your agents under control,” he said.
Within a day or two, Nixon paid a personal visit to Mr. Darling’s office, said he was sorry, and promised it would never happen again. And it didn’t.
That Senate race included a whisper campaign that Helen Douglas was married to Melvyn Douglas, “that Jew communist actor.” And that set the stage for his choice as Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate in 1952.
It was during the 1952 presidential campaign that news of Nixon’s fund became a national scandal. Republican leaders and Eisenhower advisors talked openly about dropping him from the ticket. He had to go on national TV, explain everything, and prove that he was clean. He was only about 40, and everything he cared about was on the line in this one speech.
Pat stood behind him, trying to look the way Nancy Reagan did when her Ronnie was speaking. But Pat could not hide her humiliation when Nixon disclosed everything they owned and everything they owed.
He did not put his wife on the government payroll but his opponent did – not that there’s anything wrong with that. They have a house with a mortgage they bought with a down payment he borrowed from his father. He drives an old Oldsmobile. Many political wives wear fur coats, “but Pat here wears a good Republican cloth coat, and I think she looks great in it.”
Finally, there was one gift he had no intention of returning. It was a cocker spaniel that the girls love, and call “Checkers.” And so the speech became known as “the Checkers speech” to everyone except the Nixons – who called it “the fund speech.” It saved his career.
In Julie Nixon Eisenhower’s loving memoir of her mother, she says Pat never recovered from the humiliation of having the whole country learn just how poor they really were. For liberals and other Nixon haters, the Checkers speech has been the punch line of jokes since 1952.