The story of how Mitt Romney transported Seamus, his dog, across the country strapped to the roof of the family car, gave Amy Davidson a reason to ruminate in The New Yorker on some other political dogs, and what they say about their presidential humans.
In 1952, when Richard Nixon was running as Eisenhower’s pick for Vice-President, rumors surfaced that he had taken off-the-books money for his expenses. To prevent almost being kicked off the ticket, he delivered a televised speech, acknowledging gifts he had received during the campaign.
“That’s what we have and that’s what we owe. It isn’t very much.” But also, there was Checkers. He’d been a gift. Said Nixon: “The kids, like all 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.”
The famous “Checkers Speech” scored emotional points, but Nixon’s speech couldn’t hold a candle to the most famous Presidential dog speech of all. The so-called “Fala Speech,” delivered by F.D.R. before the Teamsters Union on September 23, 1944, included an anecdote about the Scottish Terrier who went everywhere with F.D.R., even if that meant inspecting troops or sitting on Churchill’s lap or walking behind his hearse in the funeral procession.
As a puppy, Fala was trained by Roosevelt’s cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, who also taught him tricks. First called Big Boy, Fala was renamed by Franklin to “Murray the Outlaw of Falahill,” after John Murray of Falahill, a famous Scottish ancestor. Later, that became Fala. And in the ’40s, Fala became one of the White House’s most charming personalities, and one the most famous terriers of the time (with due respect to Terry, aka Toto).
Fala would appear in films, cartoons, and in F.D.R.’s monument. But he was canonized in Roosevelt’s incisive and witty speech, which examined voter-surpression by his Republican opponents, the inequities of campaign finance, and the dangers of propaganda. But it revolved around a story reported at the time, about how Fala had been left behind in the Aleutian Islands by mistake, and how a destroyer had been sent to pick him up, at a reported cost of “2 or 3 or 8 or 20 million dollars.”
Roosevelt tactfully didn’t report his own feelings about the absurdity. But he said that when Fala heard this, “his Scotch soul was furious.” The Republican attacks, he said, have not been content with just attacking him and his family. “They now include my little dog Fala,” he said. “Of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family don’t resent attacks—but Fala does resent them.” The following year, F.D.R. again came under attack when it was reported that another family pet, a Bullmastiff puppy named Blaze, was shipped from the UK as special cargo, causing a returning soldier to be bumped from the flight. (Blaze was ultimately impeached for eating the White House towels and, even worse, attacking Fala.)
Fala was, like any White House dog, ultimately a prop. And for F.D.R.’s rhetorical arsenal – bright, empathetic and funny – he was a great one. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t love in this relationship. Fala just happened to give F.D.R. a vigor that his secretly feeble body lacked, and, judging from the time they spent together (see the Fala Tumblr), another reason to be happy. (It’s hard to believe that Fala wasn’t happy either.)
The Bush family undoubtedly considered Fala’s legacy when they brought their own Scotties into the White House. Barney and Miss Beazley were much more popular with the GOP. Whether or not the Obamas considered an ersatz Fala was never reported. Their Portuguese Water Dog, Bo, has garnered some PR. Like everyone else in his social-media savvy family, he even has his own blog. But, like Fala, he has suffered certain indignities for his master: For instance, he was recently made to wear bunny ears.