By Paul Sparrow, Director, FDR Library
As we enter into the quadrennial campaign for the White House, it is informative to look back at one of Franklin Roosevelt’s most memorable campaign moments. There were many, as he was a ferocious campaigner who loved being on the hustings, but one of the most effective concerned his dog.
In the summer of 1944 President Roosevelt was nominated by the Democrats to run for an historic fourth term. After nearly 12 years in office Roosevelt was visibly aging, and his health was becoming a major concern. Republican operatives spread rumors that the President was desperately ill and keeping it a secret from the American public. Roosevelt was not in good health and in a photograph of the President accepting the nomination he looked ill and exhausted.
On August 12, he gave a radio address at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington that was poorly delivered and very poorly received. When he had lunch with his new Vice Presidential candidate he looked tired. Newspapers and political pundits were starting to say that Gov. Thomas Dewey, a young energetic campaigner, had a good chance to defeat FDR in November.
Because of the demands of the war, which was finally turning in the Allies favor, FDR did not start campaigning until late September. His first real campaign event was on Sept. 23 when he gave a speech at a dinner for the Teamsters union in Washington, D.C. It was a remarkable piece of political showmanship and almost immediately changed the dynamic of the contest.
The Dewey campaign had been attacking the Roosevelt administration as corrupt and incompetent and had accused FDR of sending a U.S. Navy destroyer to pick up his Scottish Terrier Fala after he had been accidentally left behind during the President’s visit to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Roosevelt and his family had been attacked and criticized many times over the years, and he had been called everything from a communist to a dictator. But at this particular moment FDR decided it was one thing to attack him or his family, and quite another to attack his beloved Fala.
Fala was no ordinary White House pet. He was a national celebrity, the star of a MGM movie about the White House, was featured in a series of popular cartoons and was routinely covered by the national press.
The idea for turning the Republican attacks on Fala into a joke originally came from the famed film director Orson Wells, a strong Roosevelt supporter. Roosevelt’s speech was broadcast nationally on the radio, and it started out with his typical criticisms of his opponents in Congress and a defense of his administration’s accomplishments. Near the end of the speech he turned to the topic of Fala – and brought down the house.
These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I’d left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars—his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself … But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog.”
His comments brought great laughter and applause, and as Conrad Black notes in his book Franklin Delano Roosevelt : Champion of Freedom
“It became an emotional meeting: the Democrats were inexpressibly relieved that their leader still had the magic. At his best, as on this night, he was an almost hypnotic speaker. “
Roosevelt’s performance changed the tone of the press coverage as well. Time magazine reported that “The Champ had swung a full roundhouse blow. And it was plain to the newsmen on the Dewey Special that the challenger had been hit hard – as plain as when a boxer drops his gloves and his eyes glaze.”
President Roosevelt’s Fala speech has become one of his most famous campaign events. It presented the candidate Roosevelt at his best: funny, confident and in command. It also dispelled the image of him as sickly and weak. The public loved it and the Dewey campaign never really recovered. Six weeks later Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented fourth term.