FDR, Orson Welles, and “the Fala speech”

Orson Welles is remembered today as a larger than life figure, literally as well as figuratively. His huge girth, no less than his War of the Worlds radio broadcast and revolutionary film Citizen Kaneare the stuff of legend. He was an enormously talented actor, writer, director and producer. But he had another occupation that is often overlooked: he was a presidential speechwriter.

The president was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Welles was a left-wing Democrat and an ardent New Dealer who hero-worshipped FDR. In 1944, while Roosevelt was running for an unprecedented fourth term, Welles went all-out to stump for him. He had frequent meetings with FDR at the White House and on the president’s campaign train. He barnstormed the country on FDR’s behalf, vigorously attacking the Republicans as “the partisans of privilege, the champions of monopoly, the old opponents of liberty, the determined adversaries of the small business and the small farm.”

When the strain of this tour forced an exhausted Welles to take to his bed, FDR sent him a telegram urging him to follow his doctor’s orders and take care of himself. “The most important thing,” said the president, “is for you to get well and be around for the last days of the campaign.”

FDR did not exaggerate Welles’s value to his campaign. In addition to going on the hustings himself, Welles sent the president a stream of quips, ideas and well-turned phrases that FDR would incorporate into his own addresses.

On one occasion, Welles had a brainstorm that not only boosted the president’s chances of reelection, but set the whole country laughing. It has gone down in history as the Fala speech.

FDR’s constant companion from 1940 until his death five years later was an adorable little Scottish terrier named Fala. Fala was so closely identified with the president that there is a statue of him next to the statue of FDR at the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington—the only presidential pet to be so honored.

But in 1944, the little black terrier suddenly became an issue in the increasingly heated presidential campaign.

Republicans charged that when FDR had toured the Aleutian Islands in 1943 after they had been recaptured from the Japanese, Fala had accidently been left behind. FDR, so the story went, had sent a U.S. Navy destroyer to retrieve him at an outrageous cost to American taxpayers and the risk of sailors’ lives.

Welles instantly grasped how this patently bogus charge could be turned to the Democrats’ advantage. He ad-libbed a rebuttal that pleased FDR so much that he included it in his upcoming speech to the International Teamsters Union.

“These Republican leaders,” FDR told the delighted Teamsters, “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 don’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them.”

Amid the gathering laughter, FDR continued: “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 an Aleutian island and sent a destroyer back to find him—at a cost to the 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.”

The audience went wild. One tipsy Teamster beat a silver bread tray with a ladle. Another seized a couple of wine bottles and started smashing glasses. Furthermore, since the speech was carried nationwide over the radio, the whole country was sharing in the fun.

One of those who was not laughing was FDR’s Republican opponent, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. In a statement issued the next day, Dewey declared that he would reply to the president’s flippancies with “unvarnished candor.”

He was as good as his word. Dewey had been a successful prosecutor, and in his next speech he put the New Deal in the dock, denouncing what he saw as its failures, deceptions and corruptions in withering detail. 

Of the 48 journalists on Dewey’s campaign train, nearly half said that Dewey had won the exchange with FDR. Dewey, on reflection, decided otherwise. He called it “the worst damn speech I ever made.” He was proved right when people began to refer to the election as a contest between “Roosevelt’s dog and Dewey’s goat.”

Welles had made an invaluable contribution to FDR’s campaign and eventual victory. Prior to the Teamsters speech, the president’s age and fitness for office had been the subject of some concern among voters. FDR was just 62, but was older than his years owing to the chronic high blood pressure that would kill him just eight months later. Dewey, in contrast, was twenty years younger and looked it. But if you watch the video of FDR’s Teamsters speech, you would have no idea that you were looking at a dying man. 

FDR’s innate charisma, coupled with Welles’s brilliant speechwriting skills, made the outcome of the 1944 election assured.

On election night, a grateful FDR sent Welles a telegram: “It was a great show, in which you played a great part.” No speechwriter could ask for higher praise than that.


Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelancer based in Houston, TX. He blogs regularly on his web site, www.ringingwords.com.

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