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'Ted' Rogers, 82; Set Up Nixon 'Checkers' Speech

March 26, 2003|Myrna Oliver | By Myrna Oliver Times Staff Writer

Edward A. "Ted" Rogers, who arranged the career-saving "Checkers" speech for a young Richard M. Nixon and handled Nixon's interests in the precedent-setting John F. Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates in 1960, has died. He was 82.

Rogers died March 13 in Sarasota, Fla., after a long illness.

Nixon, a U.S. senator from California, was making political progress as the vice-presidential running mate of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 when Democrats charged that Nixon was accepting gifts from a group of California businessmen.

Overnight, Eisenhower's advisors began urging the World War II general to drop Nixon from the ticket as a political liability. Rogers, at the time a Los Angeles advertising man adept at radio and television who was advising Nixon on the media, stepped in.

"I told him that if he left it to the guys in the smoke-filled rooms, he'd never make it," Rogers recalled in a 1987 interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. "I said he had to take his case to the people."

Nixon agreed, and within 48 hours Rogers had set up a nationwide television broadcast preempting the popular Milton Berle show.

An emotional Nixon accused his critics of smearing him and bluntly discussed his family's rather simple finances, pointing out that his wife, Pat, wore a plain cloth coat, not a mink.

But, appealing to a sentimental public, he also said he had received one gift that he was going to keep: a black-and-white cocker spaniel that arrived in a crate from Texas and was promptly named Checkers by his daughter Tricia.

"And you know, the kids love that dog," Nixon said, "and I just want to say right now that, regardless of what 'they' say about it, we're going to keep it."

News media denounced the speech as "a carefully rehearsed soap opera" and accused Rogers of writing and producing it. But he said there had been "no rehearsal at all."

Response was so overwhelmingly positive that Eisenhower kept Nixon on the ticket that won the White House.

Eight years later, when Nixon made his first bid for the presidency against Kennedy, Rogers served as Nixon's TV advisor; he worked on the first televised presidential debates in history. Nixon, who was thin, pale and exhausted from a hospital stay and constant campaigning, was far less telegenic than the sun-bronzed Kennedy, who went on to win the presidency.

Rogers, who was interviewed for books by such authors as Theodore White and David Halberstam, always maintained that he had opposed the debates on grounds that Nixon was better known than Kennedy and had nothing to gain from the television exposure.

In 1962 the media advisor wrote his own book on the long-discussed topic raised by the Kennedy-Nixon debates: the crucial importance of how a candidate looked on television. But Rogers avoided nonfiction discourse in favor of a novel which he titled "Face to Face," clearly illustrating how television could be manipulated in politics.

Born in Cleveland on Oct. 24, 1920, Edward Austin Rogers graduated from Cornell University and was a Marine reconnaissance bomber pilot in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

After the war, he became a doorman at CBS in Los Angeles and worked his way into radio writing and directing. He moved on to the Dancer, Fitzgerald advertising agency, where he began working with Nixon, and later relocated to New York.

Rogers worked for Metromedia and was vice president of Playboy in Chicago before retiring to Sarasota in 1972.

In the Florida city, he was president and general manager of two radio stations -- WQSR-FM and WQSA-AM -- between 1973 and 1985, and board chairman of Tampa public television station WEDU-TV Channel 3 from 1990 to 1992. He also chaired the United Way Foundation of Sarasota and the Sarasota Redevelopment Board as well as the advisory committee of Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

Rogers is survived by his wife, Pat; daughters Nancy Rogers of Sherman Oaks, Priscilla Rogers of Fort Collins, Colo., Marian Pietsch and Linsley Pietsch of Sarasota; son Michael Rogers of Nagano, Japan; a brother, Tom Rogers of Boulder, Colo.; and two grandchildren.

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