The most famous dog story in American politics came from then vice-presidential candidate Richard Milhous Nixon (who was also the Republican Senator from the great state of California). Known ever since simply as the “Checkers speech,” the dog yarn that Nixon deployed on national TV that evening in the heat of the 1952 campaign was a desperate attempt to rescue his candidacy from an insipient corruption scandal. (Who would have guessed Nixon would be less than candid about financial dealings involving a slush fund connected to corporate campaign donors?) Although Nixon later took offense at his address being dubbed the “Checkers speech,” (“as though,” he lamented, “the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my career”), he nonetheless brought his new family canine into the public arena quite explicitly and effectively:
“One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something – a gift – after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was.
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. And you know the 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.”
Nixon’s Checkers speech has since entered the American political lexicon as denoting any corny political oration designed to tug on Americans’ heartstrings while serving to shore up a faltering campaign.
Whereas Checkers arrived to the Nixon household “in a crate” that came “all the way from Texas,” the 2012 Republican nominee for president Willard Mitt Romney’s dog, Seamus, also found himself in a crate, but unlike Checkers poor Seamus was stuffed into homemade box on top of the family station wagon while embarking on a harrowing 12-hour ride up the Interstate to Ontario, Canada. The unfortunate Seamus ended up shitting himself halfway through the trip only to be doused with cold water at a service station and left up there on the roof for the remainder of the journey by a person who might be the next President of the United States. One political dog story (Nixon’s) warms the cockles of your heart; the other dog tale (Romney’s) has justifiably creeped out a lot of people.
This long descent in Republican dog stories over the past 60 years sort of mirrors the long descent of our nation’s political discourse. In August 1974, Nixon (of course) became the first and only U.S. president ever to resign the office amidst a layer cake of corruption scandals involving oodles of money and a laundry list of felonies that are still a bit of shocking even in our current era of SuperPACs and Swift Boating. (In fact, Nixon might be doing somersaults in his grave right now because almost everything he did would be perfectly legal and even “presidential” by today’s standards.)
Nixon apparently had put a lot of thought into his Checkers reference and was cognizant of Franklin Delano Roosevelt deflecting criticism from the Republican candidate Thomas Dewey during the 1944 election by defending his dog, Fala, against attacks from the Republicans. “Using the same ploy as FDR,” Nixon noted, “would irritate my opponents and delight my friends.”
In 1944, after Dewey and other Republicans charged President Roosevelt with wasting taxpayer money when he sent a destroyer to retrieve Fala, his little Scotch terrier, who had been left behind by accident somewhere on one of the Aleutian islands, FDR deadpanned:
“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. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself – such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensible. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog.”
New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy alluded to Roosevelt’s Fala story at times when he was criticized for bringing his Springer Spaniel, Freckles, along with him on the campaign trail. In his final speech after winning the California primary Kennedy thanked Freckles (even before he thanked some very important humans). “Where’s Freckles?” someone yelled from the audience; “He’s sleeping right now,” Kennedy replied. The photographer Burton Berinsky had caught Kennedy’s affection for Freckles in some intimate photos from the campaign, running on the beach in Oregon, on the campaign plane, etc. The Kennedys were well known for bringing a pack of dogs with them on all sorts of political trips and the press seemed never to tire of reporting on the spectacle.
The Romney-Seamus story is pretty disturbing because it represents what we might call the “anti-Checkers.” Unlike Fala, Checkers, and Freckles, the Seamus incident can be interpreted as a glimpse into Romney’s character. It’s an account that the Boston Globe broke back in 2007 about a family vacation that took place in 1983. It’s not a happy dog tale and leads one to think that if a cocker spaniel can save one Republican politician from ruin, maybe an Irish Setter can unravel another one.