Time Capsule: Even During WWII, Dogs Mattered in Campaigns

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Election 1944 included a heated exchange about President Roosevelt's unusually named pooch.   

Roosevelt and Fala full.jpg
Franklin Roosevelt was the rare president whose memorial included his dog. Wikimedia Commons

On a road trip with his wife and sons in 1983, Mitt Romney put the family dog, Seamus, in a rooftop carrier, and when the dog relieved himself, out of fright or excessively lengthy confinement, Romney pulled over, sprayed him off with a hose, and put him back on the roof to finish the drive. It's a story that Romney critics keep repeating with varying levels of playfulness and earnestness. And now Jim Treacher of The Daily Caller has responded on behalf of Team Red America, unearthing a passage from Barack Obama's biography where the president reveals that, while in Indonesia as a boy, he ate dog, which isn't going to be popular in focus groups either.

Absurd as it seems that this is a subject occupying the political press and punditry, given the seriousness of the times, it is by no means the first time that presidential behavior toward dogs has played a role in an election. In fact, America faced challenges even more urgent in 1944, when President Roosevelt was running for re-election against his Republican opponent Thomas Dewey.

President Roosevelt's dog was a Scottish Terrier that he named Murray the Outlaw of Falahill, and nicknamed Fala. The rumor at the time, spread by Republicans, was that the dog had accidentally been left on one of the Aleutian islands during a presidential visit -- and that Roosevelt had ordered a Navy destroyer to retrieve the stranded pooch at great expense to the treasury.

On September 23, 1944, Roosevelt immortalized the kerfuffle by addressing it during a nationally broadcast radio speech:

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 don'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 20 million dollars -- his Scotch soul was furious. (laughter) He has not been the same dog since. (laughter) I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself -- such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog!

Dewey foolishly tried to respond with a point by point rebuttal of Roosevelt's speech, prompting the Democratic National Committee to put out a statement declaring the election "between Roosevelt's dog and Dewey's goat," and Roosevelt himself wrote in a private letter soon after, "I deliberately wrote out a speech with the objective in mind of making Governor Dewey angry. It worked."

Fala would outlive his master, dying in 1952. Eleanor Roosevelt would subsequently write in her autobiography, "It was Fala, my husband's little dog, who never really readjusted. Once, in 1945, when General Eisenhower came to lay a wreath on Franklin's grave, the gates of the regular driveway were opened and his automobile approached the house accompanied by the wailing of the sirens of a police escort. When Fala heard the sirens, his legs straightened out, his ears pricked up and I knew that he expected to see his master coming down the drive as he had come so many times. Later, when we were living in the cottage, Fala always lay near the dining-room door where he could watch both entrances just as he did when his master was there. Franklin would often decide suddenly to go somewhere and Fala had to watch both entrances in order to be ready to spring up and join the party on short notice. Fala accepted me after my husband's death, but I was just someone to put up with until the master should return."

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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