The little black dog scampered across the deck of the USS Baltimore, barking repeatedly as he reached the galley. Some of the galley sailors gave him treats, while other clipped off a few locks of the dog’s hair to send home; after all, this was the most famous dog in America — his name was Fala and he belonged to the President of the United States.
The Scotch Terrier, born in 1940, was a gift for FDR from his cousin Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. The dog went everywhere with the president including a controversial inspection tour of Alaska and Hawaii in the summer of 1944. This trip, during the election campaign of 1944, would become famous not because of Fala’s missing locks, but because of a supposedly missing Fala.
President Roosevelt’s run for a fourth term in the middle of history’s worst war dictated a post convention strategy that emphasized his role as commander in chief of the armed forces, therefore, above the political battle. FDR intended to wait until the campaign’s closing phase before opening up his political guns on the Republican nominee, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey. In order to portray the president as commander in chief, an inspection trip of American bases in Alaska and Hawaii was arranged for the summer of 1944.
The war notwithstanding, the Republicans were determined to make political hay from the trip and quickly found a rumor to embellish. On August 31, Minnesota Congressman Harold Knutson fired the first shot of the Fala controversy when he commented on a rumor that the President’s dog “had been left behind at the Aleutions and that a destroyer was sent a thousand miles to fetch him.” A White House spokesman immediately denied the charge.
The next day Democratic Majority Leader John McCormick quoted FDR’s Chief of Staff, Admiral William D. Leahy, who said the Fala tale was false. Knutson replied, “Of course, I accept Admiral Leahy’s word.” Neverthless, Knutson refused to give up. On September 13, the Minnesota representative said a military plane had been sent to airlift Fala to his master.
None of these charges were ever proven, but in an election year a piece of nonesense like this is often tossed out to see if it has legs. Unfortunately for the Republicans this bit of nonsense not only had legs, but also made a U-turn and bit them.
President Roosevelt spent mid-September with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Octagon Conference in Quebec, Canada. During his stay FDR began work on the speech that would kick off his political campaign scheduled to begin at a Teamsters Union dinner on September 23. The President sent a few lines to Judge Samuel Rosenmen, one of his speech writers, with a note describing the paragraphs as “just a happy thought.” Rosenmen liked the idea, which concerned the Fala controversy, and positioned it toward the end of the speech to inject a solid dose of humor at the Republican’s expense. (A portion of this humor would now be considered politically incorrect: During the 1940s, a running gag left over from vaudville depicted people from Scotland as penny-pinching misers.) When FDR returned from Canada, he worked feverishly over the final drafts of his speech in order to prove, in Rosenmen’s words, “That he was still the old master at campaigning.”
On the night of September 23, the banquet hall at the Statler Hotel in Washington was packed with Teamsters and other Democratic party faithful. The President wasted little time in attacking the Republicans. After a brief introduction he mentioned “The mess that was dumped into our laps in 1933,” and charged that the “Old Guard” wanted to pass themselves off as the “New Deal.” FDR accused the GOP of “callous and brazen” falsification, comparing their tactics to Hitler’s “big lie” technique. The president went on to cite the positive accomplishments of his administration. Then, with mock indignation and sarcasm dripping from every word, he launched into the part of the speech that would forever labled it as “The Fala Speech.”:
“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or on my wife, or on my sons,” Roosevelt said, looking sadly across the room. “No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala.” The audience burst into laughter. “Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them.” Laughter rocked the room as the President paused; rolling his eyes, he continued, “You know Fala’s 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 had 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.”
The President ended his speech with a vision of the post-war world. “The applause and cheers when he finished were startling even to those of us who had seen him out campaigning in 1932, 1936, and 1940. Never had there been a demonstration equal to this in sincerity, admiration, and affection,” wrote Judge Rosenmen in his book Working With Roosevelt. The old campaigner still had it.
Yet, over the years, the humorous part of the speech has come to overshadow the furor created by the rest of the speech. FDR had accused the Republicans of using the tactics of Hitler. Dewey fired back that it was a “speech of mud-slinging, ridicule, and wisecracks,” inappropriate “in these days of tragic sorrow.” Governor Dewey threw his own mud saying that the New Deal had become a “power-hungry conglomeration of city bosses, communists, and career bureaucrats.” Within a few days both campaigns discovered that most of the nation was appalled by this form of campaigning in the middle of a war. In They Also Ran, author Gil Troy found that “In thirteen big-city papers, three of every four letters about the speeches disapproved either of Roosevelt’s attacks or of Dewey’s rebuttal.” Most of the letters attacking the “Fala Speech” cited bad taste in the Hitler reference or the triviality of bring a dog into political discourse.
How much the speech and the resulting furor had to do with the final outcome can never be known. Roosevelt won a fourth term by a margin of three million votes and an electoral count of 432-99. FDR died less than three months after his fourth inaugural and his vice-president, Harry Truman, continued the mud bath with Dewey in the 1948 election. And so the negative campaigning continues into our own time and surely beyond. The mud slinging of 1944 is long forgotten, but because of FDR’s “happy thought” his little Scottie dog has been immortalized along with his master.