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Fala, the Presidential Dog

Often perched on the backseat of the president’s open car, by Roosevelt’s shoulder, Fala campaigned in cities around the county. He was aboard the Prince of Wales when Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941, bringing the United States closer to open war. At the first Quebec Conference, on August 17, 1943, Fala rode in an open car with a Secret Service agent, right behind the car carrying Roosevelt and Canada’s governor general and just ahead of the one with Churchill and Canada’s prime minister, W.L. Mackenzie-King. The following summer, Roosevelt and Fala traveled by train and ship to Honolulu and on their return, stopped at the Aleutians, secured just the year before. Fala then attended, less visibly, the second Quebec Conference, where Roosevelt and Churchill discussed the future of Germany, whose defeat was clearly in sight.

That secret stop at Adak Island in the Aleutians set in train a series of events that led to Fala’s finest moment, a speech that opened and arguably ended the 1944 presidential election. In a speech to the Teamster’s Union in Washington, D.C., Roosevelt cut loose with this salvo: “These Republicans have not been content with attacks on me, 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 sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to 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 comments on Fala had brought down the house and everyone listening on the radio. Although some pundits attempted to keep the election close, it was clear that Roosevelt and Fala had turned the tide, exposing the pettiness of the Republican campaign, making a mockery of Dewey and his minions.

In the wake of what became known as the Fala Speech, the Scottie became an icon as well as a “personage.” At a White House Conference on Rural Education that drew 200 educators to the East Room on October 5, Austin R. Meadows of Alabama abruptly laid aside his text in mid-speech and said, “The folks back home really only wanted me to say hello to Fala.” After 15 minutes, Fala appeared, accompanied by a steward who gave Eleanor a plate with pieces of sponge cake while the educators scattered chairs, clapped, laughed and squealed with delight. “A group of dignified school officials had suddenly become a bunch of care-free high school kids,” the New York Times reported. Fala ignored Eleanor until he got a snort of the cake, and then came running. He rolled over and stood up on his legs to beg, but the floor proved too slick for him to jump successfully.

Roosevelt received 53.5 percent of the popular vote, for 432 electoral votes, a smashing victory that Fala, apparently upset by the election night crowd at Hyde Park, did not greet with his usual aplomb. Roosevelt did not live to experience the greater victory in war. He died on April 12, a month before Germany’s surrender and four months before the atomic bombs forced Japan’s capitulation and ushered in a new age. Fala went briefly to live with Suckley, as Roosevelt had requested before his death, but she soon returned him to Eleanor, who enjoyed his company and ultimately took in one of his grandsons to be his companion in old age. The two lived at Val-Kill, the cottage on the Hyde Park estate she had donated to the government, and Fala appeared periodically in the news. He was present when dignitaries like the victorious Eisenhower and the imperious Charles de Gaulle visited Hyde Park to lay wreaths on Roosevelt’s grave.

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