JUST PLAIN DICK by Kevin Mattson
Kirkus Star


Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952
Email this review


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?

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-60819-812-2
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2012


NonfictionSURVIVING SURVIVAL by Laurence Gonzales
by Laurence Gonzales
NonfictionHOW CHILDREN SUCCEED by Paul Tough
by Paul Tough
NonfictionTHE DANGEROUS ANIMALS CLUB by Stephen Tobolowsky
by Stephen Tobolowsky
NonfictionWALKING THE AMAZON by Ed Stafford
by Ed Stafford
NonfictionLINCOLN'S CODE by John Fabian Witt
by John Fabian Witt


NonfictionTHE CAUSE by Eric Alterman
by Eric Alterman
NonfictionWHEN AMERICA WAS GREAT by Kevin Mattson
by Kevin Mattson


NonfictionK BLOWS TOP by Peter Carlson
by Peter Carlson
NonfictionCOLD WAR by Jeremy Isaacs
by Jeremy Isaacs