A Fantasy Theme Analysis of Nixon's "Checkers" Speech
*********** WELLS ****** EJC/REC Vol. 6, No. 1, 1996 *******
A FANTASY THEME ANALYSIS OF NIXON'S "CHECKERS" SPEECH
William T. Wells
University of Missouri-Columbia
Abstract. This paper applies Bormann's fantasy
theme analysis to Richard Nixon's "checkers"
speech. Nixon is able to respond to the
situational exigence through the rhetorical
development of three major themes. These themes
are Nixon as Moral Model, Nixon as the American
Dream, and Nixon as Patriot. Each of these themes
respond to issues of mistrust and dishonesty
levied against Nixon. By responding to the
exigence of the rhetorical situation and
addressing the antithesis of the emergent fantasy
themes Nixon was able to develop a rhetorical
message which was believable and accepted by his
A Fantasy Theme Analysis of Nixon's Checkers Speech
A central component of every rhetorical situation is
exigence (an imperfection marked by a degree of urgency).
Although there are competing theories surrounding rhetorical
genesis (Benoit, 1994), most theorists acknowledge
situational exigence as a significant factor in rhetorical
genesis. For example, the rhetor interprets the exigence
and realizes the rhetorical situation can be influenced
through communication with the appropriate audience.
However, the rhetor's ability to enlist the audiences
assistance is subject to a variety of situational
constraints: "the audience may distrust the rhetor; they
may accept neither the imperfection nor its urgency; they
may fail to recognize their power; the rhetor may be
unskilled; or discussion of the exigence may worsen it"
(Smith, 1990, p. 63). Richard Nixon was a rhetor who faced
distrust and he was also aware of the great power the
audience possessed in such a rhetorical situation.
Therefore, Nixon's goal was to provide an appropriate
response to the situational exigence, audience, and
This paper will address five specific areas. First,
the author will present a justification of the significance
of the "Checkers" speech. Second, a brief discussion of the
theoretical basis and terminology related to the fantasy
theme method will be provided. Third, the author will
present a discussion of the relevant contextual and
historical antecedents which gave rise to the production of
this rhetorical artifact. Fourth, the author will provide a
detailed fantasy theme criticism of this artifact. Finally,
the author will offer an evaluation of Nixon's discourse in
the "Checkers" speech. The evaluative criteria, which
Brockriede (1974) suggests that all rhetorical critics use,
is the fantasy theme theoretical perspective.
In order to provide a sound justification for analyzing
this rhetorical artifact, it is necessary to know the
general situation from which this artifact emerged. In
September of 1952 the republican Vice-Presidential
candidate, Senator Richard M. Nixon, was charged with having
at his disposal a "supplementary expenditures fund" of
$18,235. This money was donated by seventy-six wealthy
southern California businessman. The news media was united
in their disapproval of Nixon's actions. The leaders of the
Republican National Committee felt that the presidential
candidate, General Dwight Eisenhower, had been placed in an
embarrassing position and serious consideration was given to
dropping Nixon from the ticket. The question was raised
from all sides; should Nixon remain on the ballot as
Eisenhower's running mate?
In the midst of this scandal and at his own request,
Senator Nixon went on nationwide radio and television to
"take his case to the American people." In the days
following Nixon's broadcast millions of responses were
received at the republican headquarters. Senator Nixon
remained the republican candidate for Vice-President.
Nixon was placed in a rhetorical situation in which he
had to respond to the situational exigence and attempt to
save his political life. Historians and political analysts
(Kornitzer, 1960; Costello, 1960; Mazzo & Hess, 1967) agree
that the speech delivered by Nixon in September of 1952, the
"Checkers" speech, saved Nixon's political life. Nixon
(1962) himself commented, "if it hadn't been for the
broadcast, I would have never been around to run for the
presidency" (p. 129). Thus, one can infer that a rhetorical
artifact which is credited with saving ones career would be
a worthwhile artifact for analysis. The use of the fantasy
theme method will provide an explanation and critique of
Senator Nixon's use of symbols to create a dramatization or
Bormann (1972) describes the three-step process the
critic should follow when doing fantasy theme analysis.
First, the critic should gather evidence "related to the
manifest content of the communication" (p. 401). Nixon's
speech delivered on September 23, 1952, will be examined for
its manifest content. Second, through a detailed analysis
of the speech manuscript the critic must decide which themes
chain out as a result of symbolic convergence. The
origins of Bormann's theory of symbolic convergence is based
on the idea that the interaction between individuals in a
small group allows them to construct a common reality.
Bormann, Koester, and Bennett (1978) have extended the scope
of this concept to include symbolic convergence which occurs
within the mass audience. According to Bormann et al. the
symbolic convergence which transpires between the members of
a group can also occur within the national political arena.
"Mass communication events create shared fantasies by means
of the same dynamic sociological processes which create
shared fantasies in small face-to-face groups" (1978, p.
319). The messages which come to the public during a
campaign are a mixture (a symbolic convergence) of organized
campaign messages, what is sent by the subsystems controlled
by the media, and what arises spontaneously from the
general public. Each one of these messages can be seen as
an individual perspective which has the potential to
converge with other perspectives ultimately resulting in the
emergence of a public perspective (a convergence)
designating specific beliefs or fantasy themes. Fantasy
themes are created by the symbolic interaction that occurs
within groups. Thus, the concept of symbolic convergence
asserts that communication creates reality.
Symbolic convergence is accomplished by the use of
fantasy theme. A fantasy theme is a word, phrase, or
narrative that allows members of an audience to fantasize
about an event. Cragan and Shields (1981) describe the
fantasy theme as the most basic unit of communication which
can be seen as a dramatistic statement. Fantasy themes are
component parts of greater dramas or rhetorical visions. As
people share fantasy themes, the rhetorical vision emerges.
Therefore, to understand the vision you must examine the
fantasy themes. Fantasy themes constitute the interaction
and discussion which has taken place as the rhetorical
vision is being created. Thus, the role of the fantasy
theme analysis is to find evidence that symbolic convergence
has taken place. To accomplish this, the evaluative
criteria for this analysis will be based on three factors:
the existence of symbolic convergence, the emergence of
fantasy themes, and the formation of a rhetorical vision.
On September 17, 1952 Nixon was beginning a whistle
stop train campaign trip through his home state of
California. Every one was excited about Richard Nixon and
over fifteen thousand supporters were at the train station
to support Nixon in a send-off rally. Costello (1960)
mentions that the Governor of California, Earl Warren,
officiated at this event which was broadcast over national
television. The editors of the _New York Post_ were also
excited about Nixon. The _Post_ had received a tip about a
fund that was put together by some wealthy Southern
California businessmen on behalf of Senator Nixon. On
September 18, the _Post_ ran the headline, "Secret Rich
Men's Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary"
(O'Brian & Jones, 1976). Questions concerning this campaign
fund could no longer be ignored and Nixon was forced to face
his accusers and publicly respond to these allegations.
The purpose of this fund was to help pay Senator
Nixon's political expenses that he would otherwise have to
pay out of his own income. Costello (1960) mentions an
explanation of the fund as given by the funds trustee Dana
Smith, "We realized that his salary was pitifully
inadequate. We took the position that we had got Dick in to
this and that we are going to see him through" (p. 100).
Thus, the fund became a symbol of support as well as a means
for paying for such items as long distance phone calls,
postage, taped radio messages, and trips from Washington to
O'Brian and Jones (1976) mention that reports of the
scandal began to permeate the print media. Nixon was now
beginning to be a political liability for the Eisenhower
campaign. On September 20 Nixon held a meeting with his
political advisors. Costello (1960) mentions that over 90%
of the press who were covering Eisenhower were against
retaining Nixon. National newspapers were two to one in
favor of dropping Nixon from the ticket. Nixon's only hope
for political survival was to find a way to regain public
trust and support. Nixon decided to bring his case to the
American people. By September 21 both radio and television
broadcasts were being interrupted with the latest news on
the "fund crisis." O'Brian and Jones (1976) comment that
"it was apparent that no other vice-presidential candidate
in history had caused such a storm of controversy or had
posed such a threat to his party" (p. 12). With the support
of the Republican National Committee Nixon had less than two
days to write the most important speech of his political
career. On September 23, 1952 over fifty-eight million
people tuned in to hear Richard M. Nixon respond to the
charges levied against him.
Through the use of fantasy theme analysis I will
discuss three distinct issues. First, I will define the
various fantasy themes which emerge from an analysis of the
manifest content of the artifact. Second, these emergent
themes are the component parts which form the rhetorical
vision. Finally, according to Foss (1989) fantasy theme
analysis allows the critic to name motive. This is
accomplished by discovering the motives of the participants
in the rhetorical vision. Therefore, the final section of
the analysis will attempt to assign motive to the artifact.
Fantasy themes emerge from symbolic convergence. In
the context of a mass group we can assume that certain
themes have chained out through the component forces which
constitute a mass audience (e.g., organized campaign
messages, media and their subsystems, attitudes of the
general public). The manifestation of the emergence of
these themes is illustrated in the attacks and allegations
directed toward Nixon. Therefore, to specify the specific
fantasy themes, within the context of a mass group, one must
examine the manifest content of the artifact for thematic
thesis (the attacks levied against Nixon) and thematic
antithesis (Nixon's response to the attacks). It is the
critic's position that Nixon was addressing the emergent
fantasy themes in an attempt to form his rhetorical message.
The rhetorical vision played out through the fantasy themes
is that Richard Nixon represents an individual of high moral
character, patriot, and American ideal. Therefore, Nixon
should be the only choice for Eisenhower's running mate, and
Vice-President of the United states.
Three main fantasy themes which emerge from this
speech: Nixon as moral model, Nixon as American dream,
Nixon as patriot. Each theme will be described
Nixon as Moral Model
The first theme surrounds the issue of Nixon as a moral
model. Nixon opens his speech as "a man whose honesty and
integrity have been questioned." He has chosen to respond
to the allegations levied against him. Nixon chooses to
cast the attacks against him in moral terms. Throughout
this speech Nixon chooses to emphasize his honesty and
integrity. Nixon mentions that, "To me the office of Vice-
President of the United States is a great office, and I feel
that the people have got to have confidence in the integrity
of the men who run for office and who might obtain it."
Nixon mentions that the best answer to a smear campaign, is
"to tell the truth." Thus, Nixon sets the tone of the
speech as an issue of morality:
I say that it was morally wrong if any of that
$18,000 went to Senator Nixon for my personal use.
I say it was morally wrong if it was secretly
given and secretly handled. And I say it was
morally wrong if any of the contributors got
special favors for the contributions that they
Both Nixon and the audience know the answer to each of these
conditions is no. Therefore, the inference is that the fund
remains morally as well as legally sound. Once Nixon has
established the morality of such a fund he then begins to
offer evidence and corroboration to support his assertion
that the fund was not used for his personal gain.
Nixon quotes from an independent audit of the fund:
"It is our conclusion that Senator Nixon did not obtain any
financial gain from the collection and disbursement of the
fund." After quoting from this audit Nixon again attempts
to confirms the legitimacy of this report by commenting:
Now that, my friends, is not Nixon speaking but
that's an independent audit which was requested
because I want the American people to know all of
the facts and I'm not afraid of having independent
people go in and check the facts, and that is
exactly what they did.
This is a further confirmation that Nixon is honest and a
man of high moral character. Nixon welcomes examination
because he has nothing to hide. Nixon knew that his
integrity, his loyalty, and his honesty were being
A subcategory of morality is openness and honesty. In
an attempt to be open and honest Nixon discloses his entire
financial history to the American people. Nixon tells what
"we've got and what I owe." Nixon extends this theme of
openness and honesty to a humorous extreme, even mentioning
a gift that he received from "a man down in Texas."
It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that
he sent all the way from Texas. Black and white
spotted. And our little girl--Trisha, the 6-year
old, named it Checkers. And you know the kids
love the dog and I just want to say this right
now, that regardless of what they say about it,
we're gonna keep it.
Although this passage has become the namesake of this
speech, Checkers, Nixon uses the situation to emphasize his
openness as well as his use of narrative to gain good will.
Nixon's discussion of Checkers serves to gain favor from his
supporters and ridicule those who have attacked him.
When one's ethos (intelligence, good sense, and moral
character) is being questioned the speaker must attempt to
restore and repair public perception. Generally, this can
be accomplished if the rhetor associates him- or herself
with that which is virtuous, bestows praise on him- or
herself and the cause, is sincere, identifies with the
audience, and offsets any personal gains (Brembeck & Howell,
1952). Nixon knew that within the context of an election
these types of attacks were fair game. Mazzo and Hess
(1967) mention that through the questioning of Nixon's
morality, honesty, and integrity those who attacked Nixon
were also questioning other issues. Nixon's attackers could
also question the integrity of the Republican party as well
as the judgement of Eisenhower in selecting and approving
Nixon as a candidate. Thus, Nixon's initial comments were
directly targeted at these concerns and specifically
addressed the theme of morality.
Nixon as the American Dream
A second major fantasy theme emerging from this
artifact is the idea that Nixon personifies the American
dream. Nixon presents himself as an individual who made his
own way in the world. Nixon knows what it is like to work
for a living. This theme is illustrated when Nixon asks,
how does a candidate pay for political expenses which are
not covered by the Government? "The first way is to be a
rich man. I don't happen to be a rich man so I couldn't use
that." This act of disassociating himself with the
privileged wealthy elites and places Nixon in a subordinate
role of public servant to the people. This identification
with the common man is mentioned when Nixon comments, "I
also feel that it is essential in this country of ours that
a man of modest means can also run for President." Nixon
then invokes the common man sagacity of Abraham Lincoln when
he says, "remember Abraham Lincoln, you remember what he
said: 'God must have loved the common people he made so
many of them.'" This statement further solidifies Nixon's
association with the common man.
Nixon offers an autobiographical sketch which allows
him to portray himself as an example of traditional American
values (e.g., family values, hard work, courage, and
success). Nixon mentions that, "I was born in 1913. Our
family was one of modest circumstances and most of my early
life was spent in a store out in East Whittier." This
description allows Nixon to portray himself as a common man
with a modest background and serves to align himself with
the common man rather than the privileged class. Nixon
mentions that the grocery store was "one of those family
enterprises. The only reason we were able to make it go was
because my mother and dad had five boys and we all worked in
the store." The Nixons were able to survive because they
all pulled together as a family and worked hard. This
emphasizes the American ideal of a strong family. The ideal
of hard work is reemphasized when Nixon mentions that, "I
worked my way through college and to a great extent through
law school." In a very modest way Nixon mentions his
successes. When he mentions his military service he
comments that, "I guess I am entitled to a couple of battle
stars. . . I got a couple of letters of commendation."
Then Nixon mentions the beginning of his political career,
"I returned to the United states and in 1946 I ran for
Congress." Nixon has provided a biography which conveys the
ideals of hard work, family, and success. These are
elements of Nixon as the American Dream and combine with the
fantasy theme of Nixon as a Moral Model, to begin to
formulate the rhetorical vision.
Nixon as Patriot
The third major fantasy theme emerging from this speech
is Nixon as Patriot. Nixon poses the rhetorical question,
"Why do I feel that in spite of the smears, the
misunderstandings, the necessities for a man to come up here
and bare his soul as I have?" Nixon answers his own
question, "Because, you see, I love my country. And I think
my country is in danger." In this passage Nixon goes on to
mention that the only man who can save America is Dwight
Eisenhower. Nixon takes this opportunity to draw upon a
common concern of the day, the fear of a subversive
communist take over of the United States. Nixon mentions
that, "the only man who can lead us in this fight to rid the
government of both those who are communists and those who
have corrupted this government is Eisenhower." Thus, Nixon
presents himself as a patriot. The message is not only do
you need Nixon but you also need Eisenhower. By associating
himself with an acknowledged war hero and patriot Nixon also
becomes a force in fighting overt or subversive dangers to
We now see the combination of all three fantasy themes.
Nixon has presented himself as a moral, patriotic,
manifestation of the American Dream. Nixon has refuted the
attacks against him and formulated a rhetorical vision. The
rhetorical vision is that Richard Nixon should be the
republican candidate for Vice-President of the United
Through the analysis of the manifest content of this
artifact it can be concluded that Nixon did adequately
respond to the situational exigence. Nixon did respond with
the appropriate fantasy themes which he, based on the
informal and formal allegations against him, felt were
likely to be accepted by the audience. For example, the
fantasy theme of "Nixon as Moral Model" is an appropriate
response to allegations of unethical or immoral conduct.
Allegations of unethical conduct should be responded to with
evidence of ethical\moral conduct and behavior. Allegations
that the money from this fund were used to provide Nixon
with an extravagant lifestyle should be responded to with
evidence that Nixon does not come from a privileged
background. Through the development of the fantasy theme,
"Nixon as the American Dream," Nixon provided a
biographic narrative in which he discusses his humble
beginnings and his modest, frugal lifestyle. Nixon is
presenting himself as an individual who has accomplished
modest success through hard work, determination, and
resiliency. These puritanic ideals fit nicely into the
context of the so-called "American Dream." This is an
appropriate fantasy theme to develop as a response to
allegations that Nixon should not have this type of campaign
fund. Nixon casts himself as a self-made, common man who
does not have financial resources to pay out-of-pocket
expenses incurred as a national political candidate. The
fantasy theme of Nixon as the American Dream is an
appropriate response to the situational exigence and
addresses many issues and concerns that his audience may
have. The third fantasy theme developed by Nixon was "Nixon
as Patriot." This fantasy theme establishes Nixon as a
leader and a crusader against the impending threat of
communism. The Eisenhower-Nixon ticket will be tough on
communism and preserve the democracy of America.
Within each of these themes Nixon portrays himself as a
hero struggling against some foe (villain). In the theme
"Nixon as Moral Model," the villains' (opposition party
newspaper accounts, individuals within the republican party
who feel that Nixon should be dropped from the ticket)
charges of secrecy and impropriety are met with openness and
honesty. The theme of "Nixon as the American Dream"
attempts to cast Nixon as the personification of the
American Dream. Nixon is the common man (hero) who has
worked hard to reach his position in life. Nixon presents
himself as a true servant of the people who has no concern
for any type of financial gain. This responds to the
villains, those who allege that Nixon's fund is for personal
financial gain, and illustrates to the audience that some
means must exist for a common man to pay the expenses
incurred when running for national office. The final theme
addressed in this analysis, "Nixon as Patriot," also
presents a hero against a villain. In this theme Nixon (or
the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket) represent America and
democracy. The villain presented in this theme is the
greatest villain of the day, communism.
Thus, Nixon does adequately develop and enact each of
the three major fantasy themes presented in this artifact.
Nixon successfully presents himself as a hero in each of the
fantasy themes. Through his rhetorically brilliant response
to the situational exigence Nixon was able to develop a
rhetorical message which was acceptable to his audience.
As individuals share fantasy themes, the rhetorical
vision then brings an audience together thus giving them a
shared sense of reality. Bormann (1985) believes shared
reality can be taken as evidence that convergence has
occurred. The major themes which are addressed in the
artifact emerge as a result of the symbolic convergence
which takes place in the mass audience. The antithesis of
the emergent fantasy themes are presented in the rhetorical
artifact. The fantasy themes which emerge from the
artifact combine to formulate the rhetorical vision. A
motive behind the rhetorical vision that Nixon should be
Vice-President is political survival. Political survival
would be accomplished through re-gaining public trust and
support. Nixon's motive is the immediate response to
allegations of impropriety as well as to continue his long
term goal of a career in public service.
This article has provided a theoretical foundation for
rhetorical analysis (i.e., fantasy theme analysis). It has
also applied the criteria of evaluation (symbolic
convergence, emergence of fantasy themes leading to the
construction of a rhetorical vision, and naming motive) and
offered evidence (shared reality) to confirm the argument
that symbolic interaction has produced a rhetorical vision.
The motive behind the preparation of this artifact was
survival. Thus, the rhetor (Nixon) was successful in
salvaging his political career. By responding to the
exigence of the rhetorical situation, addressing the
antithesis of the emergent fantasy themes, and developing a
rhetorical vision. Nixon succeeded and was able to continue
to be a dominant rhetorical and political force for the next
 "Chaining" refers to the stories/themes which arise
through the interaction of the group situation.
 The term "media subsystems" refers to the vast
media empires which exist in the United States and through
out the world. For example, certain newspapers align
themselves with political parties thereby influencing their
position on issues and events. In 1952 the _New York Post_
was a highly partisan democratic paper and the _New York
Herald-Tribune_ was a highly respected Republican newspaper.
Nixon knew he was in trouble when both of these newspapers
came out against him.
 Within the context of the mass audience the term
emergent themes refers to the process of chaining.
"Chaining" refers to the stories (themes) which arise in the
group situation. The events are chained from group member
to group member. Within the mass audience this chaining
does still occur, it must occur for symbolic interaction to
transpire, however it occurs in a somewhat different manner.
For example, the viewers who participate in a mass media
convergence may retell the story in small group
conversations with friends, family, co-workers. Bormann,
Koester, and Bennett (1978) mention that only the
participation of large numbers of people results in such
shared fantasies which come to compose the public's various
 Foss (1989) mentions that the final step of fantasy
theme analysis is for the critic to name motive. This stage
in fantasy theme analysis is not explicitly stated by
Bormann (1972). However it is alluded to when Bormann
(1973) discusses the "motives embedded in the rhetoric" (p.
144) in his article on the Eagleton affair.
 By thematic thesis and antithesis, I am referring
to logical assumptions related to motive the critic can
make. For example, I would assume that Nixon designed his
message to combat the antithesis of the fantasy themes
presented in his speech. If the emergent fantasy theme is
"Nixon is a moral person" then the antithesis of this
fantasy is that Nixon is not a moral person. Therefore, the
critic can infer that the motive of the rhetor was to design
a message which addresses the antithesis of the emergent
 The text of the "Checkers" speech is one which
appeared in the New York times, September 23, 1952. The
quotations from this speech are highlighted in the text and
will not be referenced each time.
 Antithesis of mass audience emergent fantasy would
1. Emergent Fantasy= Nixon is immoral, Antithesis=
Nixon is moral.
2. Emergent Fantasy= Nixon is unpatriotic, Antithesis=
Nixon is a patriot.
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Author Information: William T. Wells
Department of Communication
University of Missouri-Columbia
Columbia, MO 65211
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