Seventy years ago today, Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the midst of his fourth and final presidential reelection campaign. On that Saturday night in 1944 he delivered a speech to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters that convinced his supporters and political commentators that he was ready for the challenge of a rigorous campaign. Some of his earlier performances had been lackluster. The speech is known as "the Fala speech" because its most memorable and hilarious portion lambasts Republicans through the persona of FDR's Scottish terrier Fala. FDR states:
"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."
FDR notes that Republicans in Congress are accusing him of sending a Navy destroyer to collect the dog left behind on the Aleutian Islands at a cost of millions and Fala is outraged:
"His Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself... But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog."
Eight years later to the day, lessons from this speech would be invoked to save the political career of Richard Nixon. Nixon crafted his "Checkers" speech with FDR's Fala speech in mind and enjoyed a similar success with the tactic. Nixon's speech resurrected his political fortunes as the Republican vice presidential running mate of Dwight Eisenhower. Party faithful had wanted him removed from the ticket, fearing that charges of a Nixon slush fund would jeopardize Ike's election.
Nixon's remarks are rated by scholars as the sixth most important speech by an American in the 20th century. FDR's speech is not as widely known; even less well-known is the fact that Nixon remembered well the Fala speech and intentionally modeled "Checkers" after it. Nixon says so in his memoir Six Crises: "Thinking back to Franklin Roosevelt's devastating remark in the 1944 campaign -- 'and now they are attacking poor Fala' -- I decided to mention my own dog Checkers. Using the same ploy as FDR would irritate my opponents and delight my friends, I thought."
On September 23, 1952, Republican Richard Nixon gave a live, thirty minute defense of his character and candidacy by invoking the rhetorical device of a dog as the centerpiece of the argument cribbed from the most prominent Democrat of the 20th century: Franklin D. Roosevelt. Saving his vice presidential chances in 1952 allowed Nixon to run for the presidency in 1960 and to win in 1968 and 1972.
Why did these two political dog stories work? Both speakers were highly skilled in evoking strong emotions. Alluding to the dog makes the opponent's argument appear ridiculous without requiring the speaker to be hard-edged. FDR points to Fala to decry the motives of Republicans ("No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala") and Nixon uses Checkers to ridicule his critics for hounding him ("One other thing I probably should tell you..."). In each instance, the dog evokes a warm and genial mood and softens the speaker's pointed denunciation of his opponents. Those two instances of such effective tail-wagging ridicule explain how two dogs saved two presidencies starting 70 years ago today.