OTD in History… September 23, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt delivers his Fala Speech
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history September 23, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt delivered a campaign speech to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America in Washington, D.C., addressing a Republican accusation about his dog Fala, in what would become known as the Fala speech. Since the Democratic Presidential convention in July where the Democrats nominated Roosevelt for a fourth unprecedented term, the president refused to campaign and stump preferring to deal with the nation’s business including World War II. As the campaign commenced Roosevelt wanted to focus on continuing his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief. Republicans, however, decided to make a campaign issue about the president wasting taxpayer money having the navy fetch his dog. The attack prompted Roosevelt to stump, and address the issue in what was his best campaign speech during what Roosevelt considered was the “meanest campaign” of his political career.
At first Republican nominee, Thomas Dewey campaigned mostly agreeing with Roosevelt’s domestic and not attacking his foreign policy. Dewey attempted to style himself as younger than the president and the country needed a change in leadership after 12 years of Roosevelt being in power. The tactic did not gain traction. Soon, rumors about Roosevelt’s failing health started to make waves in the campaign, including the possibility the Roosevelt could live out a fourth term in office. Republicans, however, thought the biggest issue they could make was about Communism, and they linked the American alliance in the war with Russia and Communist Party support for Roosevelt to communism influence within the Roosevelt administration.
Roosevelt became tired of the attacks on his health but was more upset about Republicans attacking his administration and in mid-September commenced stumping. At first, the president planned to give five speeches, to answer the criticism show he was physically up to the challenge. Roosevelt took to the stump September 23, 1944, his first of speeches answering his critics, was to the Teamsters Union in Washington and considered the best campaign speech of his career. At the start of the address Roosevelt responded to the Republican attacks on his administration and the length of time, he has been in office, reminding the public, “In fact. . . . there are millions of Americans who are more than eleven years older than when we started to clear up the mess that was dumped into our laps in 1933.” Roosevelt reminded the audience Republicans are only interested in unions during campaign season and they opposed the New Deal policies throughout his presidency only now agreeing with them.
The punch line of the speech, however, dealt with Republicans making an issue out of his Scottish Terrier Fala, Murray the Outlaw of Falahill. Margaret “Daisy” Suckley, a cousin of Roosevelt gifted him the dog when he was a puppy in 1940. Soon the black little Scottie became inseparable, much to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s displeasure at having a dog at the White House. The president personally fed Fala, he slept at the foot of his bed and accompanied him on trips traveling to the president’s home Springwood in Hyde Park, New York, and for his treatments at Warm Springs, Georgia. Fala also accompanied the president on the presidential plane and train car and to important conferences including the Atlantic Charter Conference, Quebec, even meeting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Now, the Republicans accused Roosevelt of leaving Fala by accident on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska when he was touring there and then having a Navy destroyer pick and retrieve the dog, with the taxpayer price tag amounting to $20 million. National radio carried Roosevelt’s Teamsters Union speech which he ridiculed Republican claims that his administration was corrupt and wasteful with tax money. He particularly ridiculed a GOP claim that he had sent a US Navy warship to pick up his Scottish terrier Fala in Alaska, noting that “Fala was furious” at such rumors.
President Roosevelt responded by expressing:
“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 had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands 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 — 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.”
Filmmaker Orson Welles inspired Roosevelt invoking Fala’s Scottish heritage, Welles was a supporter and had made a joke to the president. Welles often suggested material to the president to use in his speeches, Roosevelt particularly liked the one about Fala and incorporated into his speech. Afterward, Roosevelt asked Welles, “How did I do? Was my timing right?” Fala worked well in the speech because he was just as much of celebrity as the president was. According to the FDR Library, Fala was “the star of an MGM movie about the White House was featured in a series of popular cartoons and was routinely covered by the national press.”
Roosevelt’s speech was well received by the public, news and the audience. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II recounts, “The audience went wild, laughing and cheering and calling for more. And the laughter carried beyond the banquet hall; it reverberated in living rooms and kitchens throughout the country, where people were listening to the speech on their radios. The Fala bit was so funny, one reporter observed, that ‘even the stoniest of Republican faces cracked a smile.’” Conrad Black in his book Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom describes, “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.” According to John W. Matviko in the book, The American President in Popular Culture “Roosevelt’s speechwriter Samuel Rosenman believed this, the so-called “Fala Speech,” was Roosevelt’s rhetorical zenith.”
In response, Dewey gave a blistering partisan speech in Oklahoma City a few days later on national radio, in which he accused Roosevelt of being “indispensable” to corrupt big-city Democratic organizations and American Communists. Dewey also referred to members of Roosevelt’s cabinet as a “motley crew.” Dewey accused the President of “incompetence, arrogance, inefficiency, fatigue, and senility.” (Boller, 263)
The Fala Speech was a turning point in the campaign and helped Roosevelt win the election. The TIME Magazine coverage showed a healthy looking Roosevelt quelling the rumors. TIME gave the president a glowing review, saying, “The Champ had swung a full roundhouse blow.” The magazine also described that Roosevelt “was like a veteran virtuoso playing a piece he has loved for years, who fingers his way through it with a delicate fire, a perfection of tuning and tone, and an assurance that no young player, no matter how gifted, can equal. The President was playing what he loves to play — politics.” (Boller, 263) Roosevelt made history winning decisively his fourth term victory, winning 432 Electoral College votes, while Dewey won only 99 votes.
Roosevelt died of cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1944, less than 4 months after taking the oath of office for the fourth time. Secret Service recalled Fala’s odd behavior crashing through a screen door barking up a hill when the President died. Fala attended Roosevelt’s funeral, and afterward, Fala lived with the First Lady, but always looked for his master to return. Fala died on April 5, 1952, two days before his 12th birthday, and was buried near to President Roosevelt at Hyde Park. Fala was immortalized as a statue next to the president at the FDR Memorial in Washington, the only presidential pet ever honored that way in history.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Boller, Paul F. Presidential Campaigns: From George Washington to George W. Bush. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.
Black, Conrad. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom. New York: Public Affairs, 2003.
Goodwin, Doris K. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: the Home Front in World War II. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Matviko, John W. The American President in Popular Culture. Westport (Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years of experience in education & political journalism.