• Blog
  • November 15th, 2013

Presidential Dogs

By Joel M. Vance

Barack Obama is taking plenty of heat over the fumbling implementation of his health care law.  The buck, as Harry Truman famously said, stops with him.  When things look darkest, though, he can do what beleaguered men have done for eons—go pet his dog.

The Obamas got plenty of good publicity (some of the last for quite a while) when they milked the choice of a First Dog for all the good will they could before settling on an Portuguse water dog for which, predictably, they were criticized.  The right wing claimed the President chartered a jet at taxpayer expense to fly the dog to the family’s vacation site.  To compound the insult, according to this nutty story, the dog was a gift from one of those God damned Communist Kennedys (the late Ted).

Ellie & cat2

Tomorrow’s First Dog?

At that point, I would suspect Mr. Obama wished for a Rottweiler with a taste for right wing nutcases.  Oddly the weirdoes didn’t  make anything of the fact that the breed was alien, from some non-English speaking country, probably Communist or something.  Why didn’t the President, whom they all know, is an African, not an Amurrican, get those girls a Rhodesian ridgeback or some other African dog?

Presidential dogs have been a source mostly of feel-good publicity for Presidents for decades and the choice of one has at times superseded inconsequential stuff like the Mideast, education, Social Security and  health care.  George W. Bush had two dogs, a Scotty (shades of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Fala) and Spot, son of Millie, the White House dog when the first George Bush was President, but you almost never heard anything about them—Little Georgie was too busy screwing up on his own to allow for news about his First Dogs pooping on the White House carpet.

Few White Houses have been without a First Dog.  Bill Clinton had a cat named Socks which got entirely too much publicity until the press tired of writing about a cat, but his dog, Buddy, a Labrador retriever, rarely was mentioned.  Buddy, a tremendously handsome chocolate Lab, was killed by a car in 2000

The first First Dog belonged to Maria Monroe, daughter of President James (1817-1825) who also was the first child in the White House and the first to be married there (at 17).  The dog was a spaniel of some sort, but she probably did not hunt behind it, presidential daughters not being noted for upland hunting enthusiasm.

Not all presidents have had dogs.  Benjamin Harrison had a goat named His Whiskers, which tells you quite a bit about Benjamin Harrison.  Once the goat ran away, down Pennsylvania Avenue, pulling a cart containing the President’s grandson, Benny.   Mr. Harrison chased the cart and the press had fun with it.  Obviously something is missing from politics today, at least at the presidential  level.   When was the last time you saw a president chasing a goat cart down Pennsylvania Avenue?

Another example of how things have changed is the story, possibly true, of a small boy who sneaked onto the White House grounds and was fishing for goldfish in a pond when King Tut, a German shepherd belonging to Herbert Hoover, grabbed the kid by the seat of his pants and held him until the gardener showed up.  Today you’d have a dozen Secret Service agents, a hovering gunship, a SWAT team and a detachment of Green Berets all over any little kid who even looked through the fence at the goldfish pond.

As you might expect, Theodore Roosevelt, the first and greatest of the conservation-minded, outdoor-loving presidents, had a virtual zoo in the White House, including six children.  All the kids, by accounts as wild as Mr. Roosevelt’s legendary charge up San Juan Hill, had ponies and lizards and rats and squirrels and even bears (a garter snake was named Emily Spinach because it was green and they had a friend named Emily).

For all Mr. Roosevelt’s hunting proclivities, apparently none of his menagerie was a hunting dog.  He probably had so many that they weren’t worth mentioning.   He did have a bull terrier, Pete, who was banished from the White House after he ripped the britches of the French ambassador.

Barbara  Bush,  wife of the first Bush president, actually ghost-wrote Millie’s Book, their springer spaniel’s autobiography,  which  earned more than one million dollars in royalties which Mrs. Bush donated to a foundation to endorse literacy (in people, not dogs).   Mr. Bush Sr., in a moment of election year pique, was reported to have said of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos.”

Caroline Kennedy’s dog, Pushinka, was a gift from Nikita Khrushchev and no doubt had the most thorough vet exam in history to make sure the dog was not implanted with listening devices.  I can imagine the dog whispering into a paw-implanted transmitter, “Boss, the guy really does mean get those missiles the hell out of Cuba!”

George Washington started the tradition of presidential pooches.  He raised and hunted foxhounds.  Mr. Washington kept his dogs in a kennel, not in the presidential home.  Not so the Reagans who invited Lucky, an 85-pound sheepdog, given to Mr. Reagan by a March of Dimes poster child, into the White House.  But Lucky, belying his name, used to drag Mrs. Reagan around as if she were a chew toy and he also misbehaved on the White House carpets.

Mrs. Reagan was less tolerant of such misbehavior than Mrs. Bush would be with Millie, so Lucky soon found himself far from the hustle and bustle of Washington, banished to the Reagan ranch in California.  His successor was a King Charles spaniel who, presumably, scratched at the door when necessary, and heeled properly on leash.

Franklin Roosevelt’s black Scottie Fala was photographed almost as much as was the president.  Fala was a shameless camera hound and once tried to crash an inaugural parade by jumping in the car seat that Sam Rayburn, the longtime Speaker of the House, was supposed to occupy.

Mr. Roosevelt,  who loved his little dog (he once sent a destroyer back  for  Fala  after the pup had  been  left behind on the Aleutian Islands),  no doubt  would have  preferred Fala to the dour Speaker, but politics is politics and Mr. Rayburn got his seat back.

Another Scottie was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s shared gift to his alleged mistress, Kay Sommersby, during World War Two.  The dog’s name was Telek, a combination of Telegraph Cottage, an English retreat for the future president, and the name Kay.

The most scandalous event involving a presidential dog was when Lyndon  Johnson  picked one of his two beagles up by the ears, igniting the outrage of dog lovers everywhere (his choice of names was somewhat less  than inspirational: he  called them Him and Her).  Presidents, being politicians, know the value of being considered dog lovers and Mr.  Johnson was a consummate politician, but he stumbled badly with the ear-pulling incident.   “Those Republicans are really bashing me about picking those darned dogs up by the ears,” he grumbled to his vice-president Hubert Humphrey.

There possibly were other issues involved in Mr. Johnson’s decision not to run for a second term, but Beaglegate certainly didn’t gain him any swing votes.  At least he didn’t send them on trips on a destroyer or a private jet.

Mr. Johnson also had a mutt, found at a Texas gas station, who would howl duets with the President in the Oval Office. There are photos of the two of them with their mouths open, heads lifted in song.  That must have been almost as inspiring as watching Benjamin Harrison chase his goat.  Harry Truman defended his fellow Democrat over the ear-lift incident:  “What the hell are the critics complaining about.  That’s how you handle hounds.”

Mr. Truman also said, “If you want a friend in politics, get a dog.”   But Mr. Truman did not follow his own advice (or maybe did not want a friend in politics).  He didn’t have a dog (he was given a cocker spaniel as First Dog, but decided not to keep it).  Neither did Calvin Coolidge, who nevertheless said, “Any man who doesn’t like dogs and doesn’t want them around shouldn’t be in the White House.”

Only once has a dog  become intimately involved in presidential politics,  other than as an attractive accessory and that was when vice-presidential  candidate Richard  Nixon,  hounded  (sorry for the dog pun) by allegations  that  rich backers were supporting him a luxurious lifestyle,  made  what became known as the Checkers speech in which he cried poor, using as an example his wife’s plain Republican cloth coat and  emotionally defended  accepting the gift of a cocker spaniel, which his daughter Tricia named Checkers.  “Regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it,” Mr. Nixon declared.  And Mr. Nixon remained on the ticket and Checkers became a presidential dog.

Jimmy Carter was a longtime quail hunter, but his presidential dog was only part bird dog–a springer spaniel, mixed with genuine alley mutt.   Gerald Ford, a golfer, not a hunter, did own a hunting dog, a golden retriever named Liberty, who whelped in the White House (one puppy later became a Guide Dog for the blind).

So, presidential dogs have abounded (and bounded) and Mr. Obama and  his  successors should realize  there is great publicity value in fondling the soft ears of a loving dog while evading pointed questions from nosy reporters (just don’t use the dog’s ears as a handle and keep it off Air Force One, especially if it’s alone except for the pilot).

Any new president needs a nice little Brittany and a double-barreled shotgun.  It so happens I have three of the latter that I can’t hit anything with and which I would be willing to part with for a reasonable profit…and we occasionally have a litter of pups.

I look forward to hearing from the White House and am willing to cut the president a deal on a good pup.  But he (or she if Mrs. Clinton prevails) can’t have pick-of-the-litter through.  My son asked first.

-30-

Read More


Leave a Reply




TRUMP DEFACES A MONUMENT

By Joel M. Vance   I can testify from first-hand observation that George Washington does not have nose hair or nose boogers. There may be some granite dust and stray pebbles but I didn’t see them. I can’t speak for Donald Trump’s nose condition since I haven’t been present when allegedly the White House doctors […]

Read More
View the Blog »

FISHING BUDDIES

By Joel M. Vance   There is a photograph in the Vance archives of a man, his back to the camera, standing ...

ANYONE FOR SECONDS?

By Joel M. Vance   It is 1958 and a popular movie on the screens of drive-in movies all over America is ...