Cass Sunstein: Mr. President, dogs have to resent all these attacks

(The Associated Press) In this Aug. 14, 1935, file photo President Franklin Roosevelt signs the Social Security Bill in Washington.

OK, we get it. President Donald Trump really doesn't like dogs.

On Tuesday, the president uncorked a favorite epithet for fired White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman. She’s “that dog.”

"When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at the White House, I guess it just didn't work out. Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog!" Trump wrote on Twitter.

Mitt Romney could have been president, but he "choked like a dog." In a presidential debate, Sen. Marco Rubio started to "sweat like a dog."

Broadcaster David Gregory was "fired like a dog." Brent Bozell of the National Review came "begging for money like a dog." In their Senate testimony, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates started "to choke like dogs."

All this is a puzzle. Dogs don't beg for money. They rarely get fired. They barely sweat.

They certainly don't choke. Thousands worked as sentries in World War II. Right now, about 1,600 military working dogs are in the field or assisting recuperating veterans. Some are trained to detect explosives, and put their lives on the line to protect soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. One bomb detector was with the Navy SEAL team that raided Osama bin Laden's compound.

It’s instructive to compare Trump’s frequent use of the D-word with a famous passage in a speech by one of his predecessors, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The speech was nominally about dogs — or, a particular dog — but it was actually about decency and civility.

The date was Sept. 23, 1944, and it was the height of an ugly campaign season. Roosevelt, who was seeking his fourth term, began by noting that "Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons." They have gone much further and "now include my little dog, Fala."

Roosevelt was telling the truth. Republicans had charged that the president had left Fala behind on a trip to the Aleutian Islands, and then had to send a Navy destroyer back to get him, costing American taxpayers millions of dollars.

With mock outrage, Roosevelt said, "I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks, but Fala does resent them."

Roosevelt added quietly and with resignation, “I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself.” But — his killer line — “I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog.”

The speech worked in part because Fala was known and beloved throughout the nation. He traveled frequently with the president. Movies were made about him.

During the Battle of the Bulge — a major battle with Germany toward the end of World War II — American soldiers tested the identity of suspected German infiltrators by asking them to name the president’s dog.

As the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin put it, the laughter produced by the Fala speech "reverberated in living rooms and kitchens throughout the country, where people were listening to the speech on their radios. The Fala bit was so funny, one reporter observed, that 'even the stoniest of Republican faces cracked a smile.'"

But it wasn’t just funny. Roosevelt’s remarks about Fala were in the context of a speech that touched directly on the Great Depression, the fight against fascism and the right to vote. Defending his beloved dog, Roosevelt was showing his own gentleness, and making a point about the cruelty and absurdity of personal attacks in politics. He was saying that we should be kind to one another — and focus on what matters.

Like a dog.

Cass R. Sunstein | Bloomberg Opinion

Cass Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “The Cost-Benefit Revolution” and co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”

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