Dog Days at the White House

Dog Days at the WhiteHouse By Nicolaus Mills

At last Malia and Sasha Obama have the dog they were promised by their parents. Bo, a six-month-old Portuguese water dog, a gift from Senator Edward Kenny and his wife Victoria, has become part of the extended White House family. Bo is a happy diversion from trying to figure out what the Obama administration's first 100 days in office add up to, but we should not let Bo make us forget there was a time when the president's dog mattered. The year was 1944, and in the first wartime election since Lincoln ran for a second term in 1864, the Republicans were desperate to stop Franklin Roosevelt. It was hard to attack the politics of a president who had guided the country through the Great Depression and was in the process of leading it to victory in World War II. But it was possible to attack FDR personally as a "tired old man" who had been in office so long that he treated the presidency as his fiefdom. The attack peaked in the fall of 1944 when Republicans charged that following a visit to the troops, a fatigued FDR had left his dog Fala behind him on an Aleutian Island, then sent a destroyer to fetch him. FDR's response to the Fala charge came on September 23 in a speech to the Teamsters Union at the Statler Hotel in Washington. Much of the speech was traditional campaign rhetoric with FDR reminding his audience what his administration had accomplished since it took office in 1933. But the climax of the speech came when Roosevelt spoke directly to the accusations about Fala. "These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or my sons. No, they now include my little dog Fala," FDR declared. "Well, of course, I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them." Roosevelt's Teamsters audience howled with delight, but the president was not done. "You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress had concocted a story that I had left him behind on an Aleutian Island and had sent a destroyer back to find him . . . his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since." FDR observed with mock solemnity before concluding, "I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog." The Republicans never recovered from the president's Teamsters speech. Their personal attacks on FDR fizzled. By comparison with the president, the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey appeared humorless and inexperienced. He lost the election by over three million votes. Since 1944, no presidential dog has ever equaled Fala in political importance. Bill Clinton's Buddy and George W. Bush's Barney had happy and undistinguished White House careers. But in 1952 Richard Nixon, then campaigning as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president, showed that making use of the family dog was still good politics. Nixon was accused of having a secret slush fund, and as the accusation against him mounted, he was forced to defend himself in a nationwide television speech. For most of the speech, Nixon was content to give an account of his comparatively modest holdings and the mortgages he held on his houses in Washington, D.C. and Whittier, California. But the key to his speech, which immediately became known as the "Checkers Speech" was the story he told about the gift of a black-and-white cocker spaniel, Checkers, that he had received from a Texas supporter. "It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he sent all the way from Texas. Black-and-white spotted. And our little girl---Tricia, the six-year-old---named it Checkers," Nixon told his television listeners before going on to draw a line in the sand by announcing, "And you know the kids love that dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're going to keep it." Over two million telegrams poured in, virtually all of them favorable. Nixon's political career was saved. He now had a solid foothold on the winning Republican ticket. Checkers had done for him what Fala had done for FDR. If Bo is lucky, he will never be asked to serve as a presidential symbol, never be more than a future name on Trivial Pursuit. He will simply be Malia's and Sasha's dog and the source of a brief debate over the merits of getting a purebred dog or one from a shelter.

Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."