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On this date in 1944, Franklin Delano Roosevelt kicked off his fourth presidential campaign. It was late in the game for that, but FDR was a popular wartime president (if not a healthy one) and he pulled it off with aplomb. His speech was delivered at the Statler Hotel (now the Capital Hilton), just a couple of blocks from the White House. The audience included chieftains of the big labor unions that supported Democratic campaigns, just as they do today.

Roosevelt's speech that day was funny, fiery, and partisan. It's unlikely hero was Fala, the president's beloved Scottish terrier. In an odd coincidence, on the same date eight years later, Richard M. Nixon saved his political career with an appeal known as "the Checkers speech." Checkers, if you don't know, was a cocker spaniel.

I've written about these speeches previously, but I've been thinking of my own dog -- gone six years this week -- and, as the song goes, "he still grieves." 

As President Roosevelt spoke at the Teamster-sponsored event on Sept. 23, 1944, the old "happy warrior" had two goals in mind. First, to allay voters' concerns about his health, FDR wanted to show he still had the requisite passion for a national campaign. Second, FDR was trying to get under the skin of Republican nominee Thomas Dewey.

The speech, which succeeded on both levels, is today remembered mainly for a telling passage about Fala. A word of background helps explain the context: That summer, while Democrats were nominating Roosevelt for an unprecedented fourth term, the commander-in-chief was at sea, touring the Pacific theater before the final push against the Japanese.

Roosevelt was accompanied on this cruise by Fala. There was nothing unusual about that. Over the previous five years, Americans had become accustomed to reading about the dog or seeing him in newsreels: Fala having to be shooed to the backseat in a presidential limousine; Fala turning 4 years old and refusing to cooperate with White House photographers by eating his birthday cake; Fala fidgeting on a couch in the Oval Office as the president held a D-Day press conference.

But somehow a rumor got started that the president had left Fala behind on the final leg of the trip and that upon discovering this oversight in Seattle, had dispatched a U.S. Navy warship to the Aleutian Islands to retrieve him. This tale was unlikely, but such gossip takes on a life of its own in a campaign, whether the year is 1944 or 2021, and this one was repeated by a Minnesota Republican congressman named Harold Knutson. Instead of being dispatched "a thousand miles" to fetch the president's dog, Knutson barked, the ship should have been engaging the enemy.

Knutson's geography was off -- it would have been much further than 1,000 nautical miles -- but more to the point, the rumor was what today we'd call "fake news." And although Dewey never went near the bogus story, Roosevelt saw his advantage and took it.

In his speech at the Statler Hotel, Roosevelt hit on themes still being employed by Democrats today. He attacked the conservative wing of the Republican Party, while questioning whether moderates could stand up to it; he claimed that Republicans were trying to make it harder for his supporters who lived overseas to vote; he accused his opponents of lying and making pernicious use of contributions from large donors.

Mostly he defended organized labor and boasted of his own economic policies while disparaging those of the other guy and his political party. Then, in what historian James MacGregor Burns called "the dagger thrust," Roosevelt turned with a mock seriousness to a sly attack he'd been planning for a while:

"These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons," he said. "No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them.

"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 20 million dollars -- his Scotch soul was furious," Roosevelt continued as his audience laughed hard. "He has not been the same dog since."

The story of Checkers I'll save for another morning. As for Fala, he outlived his master, passing on in 1952, but according to Eleanor Roosevelt, "he never really adjusted" to life without FDR.

In her autobiography, Eleanor described a touching scene in 1945 when Gen. Eisenhower came to lay a wreath on Franklin's grave. When Fala heard the sirens of Ike's police escort, she wrote, "his legs straightened out, his ears pricked up and I knew that he expected to see his master coming down the drive as he had come so many times."

He lived out his life never giving up hope. "Later, when we were living in the cottage, Fala always always lay near the dining-room door where he could watch both entrances, just as he did when his master was there," Mrs. Roosevelt wrote. "Franklin would often decide suddenly to go somewhere and Fala had to watch both entrances in order to be ready to spring up and join the party on short notice. Fala accepted me after my husband's death, but I was just someone to put up with until the master should return." 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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