No dogs – Presidential Campaigns

Tapping the Inner Dog

A notable curiosity in the current presidential campaign is an absence of dogs, who have often appeared as supporting cast in previous American elections and sometimes, tails wagging, even helped shift a campaign’s momentum.

The most familiar of these political dogs are Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fala and Richard Nixon’s Checkers. Both of these dogs rescued embattled candidates eight years apart to the day.

Nixon and CheckersNixon playing with Checkers in the backyard of his Washington home in 1952.

On September 23, 1952, facing charges of financial impropriety, Nixon sought to preserve his place as Eisenhower’s running mate by trotting in front of television cameras his family and his little cocker spaniel, Checkers, the one gift he admitted taking from political supporters. “And you know,” he said, “the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” Checkers showed that playing the poor-picked-on-dog card might buy you enough sympathy to get what you want.

Nixon never learned to deliver a speech or to master the new medium of television. But a consummate political animal, he doubtless knew he was invoking memories of FDR’s Fala speech. Roosevelt was ailing, trailing, and failing — party leaders felt — to respond vigorously to personal attacks, when he spoke on September 23, 1944, to the Teamsters Union meeting in Washington, and to a national radio audience.

The President recognized the reality of aging, then proceeded to lambaste the Republicans for all their policy mistakes, their falsehoods and hypocrisies.

But worse: “These Republicans have not been content with attacks on me, my wife, my sons,” he said. “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. 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.”

FDR and FalaFala with Roosevelt.

After 64 years, you can still hear the Dewey campaign implode as the Teamsters erupt in laughter.

A month later 3 million people turned out for the President’s visit to New York, with Fala and Eleanor beside him in an open car. Fala had become an icon, a dignitary, wrote John Crider in The New York Times. Roosevelt showed that a well-timed bark, framed with withering humor, can completely alter the tenor of a campaign.

In this campaign, we’ve seen the dog’s progenitor, the wolf, used to invoke fear and revulsion. A recent McCain ad had Barack Obama morphing into a big bad wolf pack to threaten little Miss Riding Hood, a k a Sarah Palin. Meanwhile, the Defenders of Wildlife ran a graphic ad attacking Palin for the aerial hunting of wolves.

Wolves belong in the woods, running free. We need our our old interlocutor, the dog, who understands us better than we do ourselves, but they are not to be found. John McCain has four dogs, we’re told, but we never see them.

Reportedly, the Obamas have promised their children a dog, should he win, which led the American Kennel Club to conduct an online poll to identify the best breed for the family. The French poodle won. Granted, the French helped the rebellious American colonies secure independence, and Washington and Jefferson were enamored of French dogs, but a poodle is, perhaps unconsciously, an odd pick. Banned from military service early in World War II as too frivolous for work and from the Iditarod International Sled Dog Race, headquartered in Wasilla, Alaska, as not rugged enough for the cold North, the poodle has long been deemed both one of the least serious and most intelligent of dogs.

Whatever the case, without a flesh-and-blood dog or two on the trail to remind the candidates of their better selves and bring some humor to the proceedings, I fear this campaign may be doomed to devolve from name-calling into a knockdown, eye-gouging, brass-knuckle street brawl of the sort only humans can wage.

Mark Derr is the author of “A Dog’s History of America: How Our Best Friend Helped Explore, Conquer and Settle a Continent” (2004) and “Dog’s Best Friend: Annals of the Dog-Human Relationship” (1997, 2004), among other books

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