A cocker spaniel and a plain cloth coat become emblems of the paranoid-style right-wing politics of the 1950s, courtesy of one Richard Milhous Nixon.
The time is 1952. As Mattson (History/Ohio Univ.; "What the Heck Are You Up to, Mr. President?": Jimmy Carter, America's "Malaise," and the Speech that Should Have Changed the Country, 2009, etc.) opens his narrative, Nixon is pitching a fit: “Goddamn bastards want me out. They want to sack my political career. They don’t have much on me, but they’ll use what they have. That’s how they play, those sluggers and smear boys in the liberal press.” What they had was slender evidence that Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower’s running mate, had been handed some thousands of dollars to help his cause. Nixon’s defense was the famous “Checkers speech,” which forms the centerpiece of Mattson’s account. But rather than take Nixon’s strained words about his frugality and Pat’s wifely virtues at face value, Mattson neatly deconstructs the speech, which “started off a bit rough” but developed into a work of “political genius,” showing how Nixon used it to set the notion of himself as a plain man in a land of plain men in a time when claims of heroism were all around—thus distinguishing himself not just from opponent Adlai Stevenson, that famed egghead, but also from Eisenhower himself, chief general during a war in which Nixon was middle management in the Pacific. “The speech,” writes Mattson, “saved Nixon’s career by making him into a man of the people, a ‘real’ American—a term that rang throughout the letters and telegrams that poured in for him.” By implication, Stevenson and even Eisenhower weren’t real Americans, thus helping establish the kind of lowest-common-denominator politics that has held sway ever since.
In that sense—and given the talk of “real” American-ness that persists today—Mattson’s excellent book is a timely companion to the current election season. The question is: Who’s playing Nixon?