It was Orson Welles’s idea, the Fala Speech.
“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or on my wife, or on my sons,” President Franklin Roosevelt said at the end of a speech to the Teamsters. “Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them.”
Fala was the president’s Scottish terrier. (His full name was Murray the Outlaw of Falahill.) It was September 1944, and Roosevelt had been accused by congressional Republicans of wasting taxpayer money by sending a destroyer to retrieve his dog, supposedly left behind on an island during a trip to the Pacific.
It was fairly clear that the story was not true. That it was — as a cat lover might have put it — fake meows.
“You know, Fala is Scotch,” the president said. “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. He has not been the same dog since.”
His audience went wild. The historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that “the Fala bit was so funny, one reporter observed, that ‘even the stoniest of Republican faces cracked a smile.’”
“How did I do?” the president asked Welles later. “Was my timing right?”
His timing was pretty good. Roosevelt was re-elected two months later, with 53 percent of the vote.
It is not impossible that the Fala speech — generating humor and good will during a time of national crisis — ensured Roosevelt’s re-election. At the very least, the contrast with Thomas Dewey, his opponent, was stark. Dewey responded to the Fala speech with a bitterly partisan one that he later called “the worst damned speech I ever made in my life.” After that, as an old joke had it, the contest was between Roosevelt’s dog and Dewey’s goat.
Dogs have been part of the presidency longer than the White House itself. George Washington owned an array of foxhounds named Drunkard, Mopsey, Taster, Cloe, Tipsy, Forester, Captain, Lady Rover, Sweet Lips and Searcher, among others. The White House has been lousy with dogs since, from Abraham Lincoln’s Fido to Lyndon Johnson’s long-suffering beagles, Him and Her. And more than just dogs; according to the online Presidential Pet Museum, the White House grounds have hosted cows, chickens, a goat, a pair of bald eagles, Shawl Neck game chickens, at least one alligator and a tobacco-chewing ram. Calvin Coolidge alone hosted a black bear, a pygmy hippo, a bobcat, a donkey, a wallaby, a goose, a thrush, several canaries and two raccoons. Plus a pair of lion cubs, named — seriously — Tax Reduction and Budget Bureau.
These creatures have provided fleeting glimpses of the gentler side of the world’s most powerful person. (OK, maybe not the alligator or the bear, but the others.) It is in those glimpses that we are reminded that the leader of the free world has a heart and that the decisions he makes have been guided, in at least some small measure, by the tenderness and grace of dogs. Also raccoons.
Much has been written about what might be generously described as Donald Trump’s lack of interest in dogs, and as the election of 2020 slowly draws near, it’s a subject worth considering again. (For the record, I should note that former Vice President Joe Biden is the owner of a rescue dog named Major, a German shepherd who has been described as looking a lot “like the dog version of himself.”)
My colleague Frank Bruni has written, “For Trump, all relationships are transactional and God’s creatures possess value only in accordance with their ability to elevate and enrich him.” Indeed, our current president’s only apparent interest in dogs so far has been to use them as way to insult people he does not like. Donald Trump is, in fact, the first president since William McKinley not to have a dog.
What’s telling is not Mr. Trump’s disdain for dogs, specifically — after all, plenty of people don’t like dogs, or for that matter, cats or pygmy hippos. It’s the reasons he gives for this contempt that are so depressing. “How would I look, walking a dog on the White House lawn?” he said at a rally in El Paso last year. “I don’t know, I don’t feel good. It feels a little phony to me.”
I wonder what he means by “phony.” It is that he believes the only reason a person would ever own a dog is for P.R. reasons?
It’s true many presidential dogs have been used to help shape a politician’s image — cue Richard Nixon and his Checkers speech, or Herbert Hoover’s campaign photo of himself posing with his shepherd, King Tut. But surely the presence of an FDOTUS has other, less cynical effects. Is it so wrong to think that Donald Trump’s character might have been changed — just the smallest bit — if there were a dog beneath his roof?
It almost happened. On Thanksgiving in 2016, Mr. Trump’s friend Lois Pope told the president she wanted to give him a Goldendoodle named Patton (after the general). Ms. Pope thought it might be sweet for Barron Trump, the president’s son, to have a dog in the White House. She showed the boy a photo of Patton, and she said later, “This big smile came over his face, and it just brought tears to his eyes.”
But Mr. Trump told Ms. Pope he was too busy for a dog. Later, he told supporters he didn’t need one. Because “that’s not the relationship I have with my people.”
Maybe. But if he’d become the owner of a Goldendoodle, maybe he’d have had a different relationship — and not just with “his people,” but with all of us. Because a dog might have encouraged Mr. Trump to take himself just a little less seriously. Because a dog might have given him someone to love besides himself.
Dogs have changed a president’s mind-set before. President John Kennedy’s Welsh terrier, Charlie, was given to the family during the 1960 campaign. After the election, the dog became part of a White House that included a menagerie that truly rivaled Coolidge’s, including seven horses, a cat, several birds and — according to former White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger — a rabbit named Zsa Zsa that drank beer and could supposedly play part of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a trumpet.
In October 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy had to plan the nation’s response. It was a tight spot. “Everything was in an uproar,” the White House kennel keeper said. “It looked like war. Out of the blue, Kennedy suddenly called for Charlie to be brought to his office.”
Then he said, “I suppose it is time to make some decisions.”
The current moment, in its own way, is no less harrowing than that one. It is a moment that calls out for decisions made with wisdom and calm. It is a moment in which we need Donald Trump to be a better kind of man, the kind that both dogs and humans — all of us — might look to with affection and respect.
For over three years now many Americans have been anxiously waiting for Mr. Trump to grow into the job, to show that he understands he is the leader of the whole country and not just his core supporters. For a while, we thought, national moments of mourning, from Charlottesville to El Paso, might engender a new Trump, showing us a man governing — just once — from his heart, rather than his spleen.
Donald Trump has failed to be that man. Now, with tens of thousands of Americans dead from the coronavirus and an economy in ruins, he’s the man who boasts that his TV ratings are as high as “The Bachelor” finale’s.
The Fala speech, 76 years ago, generated humor and good will during a dark time. Surely right about now we could use generous portions of both.
Oh, I know full well that the odds of the president’s becoming a different sort of man at this hour are slim. He’s an old dog. The era of new tricks is over.
And yet, the seven dogs with whom I have shared my life — Playboy, Sausage, Matt the Mutt, Brown, Alex, Lucy and Ranger — have made me into an optimist. They have taught me to have hope. They have shown me what it means to be loved.
It is impossible for me not to wish that the leader of the free world could feel this too.
Mr. President, I want to believe that somewhere deep inside you, there is a good boy, still waiting to be born.
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