If I read the headline “The Election is Going to the Dogs” one more time, I may just go all Aaron Burr on some pundits. Seriously, I have thought about it long and hard, talked it over with my dog, and I really think it’s quite duel-worthy. I just think that we need to raise the level of pet discourse in this country starting right now.
If you haven’t been following along at home, things really started to go to the aforementioned dogs [shudder] in the heat of the Republican primaries. A story re-emerged that in 1983 Mitt Romney had strapped a carrier to the roof of his car, his Irish setter Seamus inside, and drove the family to a vacation house in Ontario, a 12 hour trip. The drive was not without incident, and a reportedly runny incident at that. Animal lovers lashed out, polemics were penned, and DogPAC was even formed. The economy be damned, this was the real news. Mitt supporters didn’t go quietly, however. They also dredged up old news, this time from Barack Obama’s past. They were quick to note that while Seamus had a rough start to his holiday, at least he wasn’t stewed. President Obama ‘fessed up to eating dog meat while living in Indonesia. This was not uncommon there and it seemed that Obama was neither butcher, nor chef when it came to preparing these meals, but the tale lingers, or continues to wag, or something. While little new will probably be said about these two stories, the media half-seriously reports that they have opened up a new battleground in the election. And for the record, Obama is clearly winning the battle of pet owners eager to show how their pooches will cast their votes at the ballot…uh…hydrant in November.
So what. Why take it to a duel? Well, first of all, the puns in the stories are terrible: “Mitt Romney hounded…” (Washington Post), “Mitt Romney can’t outrun Seamus…” (Politico), all manner of dog as a noun or the above “going to the dogs” permutations. Puns may hold low status in the world of humor, but that’s no reason not to try. A few quick suggestions:
He Said, Chien Said: The Seamus Romney Story
CanId and Ego: Why Mitt Must Put His Dog Before Himself
A Crying Seamus
OK, those are also awful, but that’s secondary bugaboo anyway. As Secretary of Research here at P4P, what really gets me is that these stories are devoid of historical context or import. I want some investigation and scholarship in my sideshows! The place of pets in presidential politics reveals much about the kind of person we as Americans expect our Commander in Chief to be. We’ve seen many POTUS menageries over the years, but what do they tell us? Hmmm? To this end, I offer a partial typology of some president-pet alliances we have seen in Washington.
The swashbuckling adventurer is an enduring Victorian archetype. In a world that was increasingly known and tamed through technology and settlement, the outdoors were becoming a forum for leisure and adventure, not merely to reap the necessities of survival. The fading wilds needed to be preserved. And big game was hunted to be mounted for display in parlors, not just eaten for sustenance. To enter the ever-shrinking uncharted was proof of rugged manhood; to return with stories to tell was the hallmark of heroes. There was no greater swashbuckling prez that Teddy Roosevelt. He had at least twelve horses, for rough-riding one assumes. Then there were the more exotic prizes: five bears, five guinea pigs, assorted snakes, two kangaroo rats, various lizards, an owl, a flying squirrel, a raccoon, a coyote, a lion, a hyena, and a zebra. But there was a soft side, an empathy with the fragility of nature. The original kind and gentle Republican, Theodore Roosevelt kept a one legged rooster.
The Quaint Eccentric
The Victorian Era through roughly The Great Depression was also an era of quacks and polymaths. These were odd birds and collectors, and they were legion. There was a more American flavor to some of these eccentrics, however, those bridging the divide between the country’s rural heritage and it’s urban encroachment and industrialization. They found comfort in imbedding the quaintly bucolic within city society. In so doing, they represented an integration of America’s agrarian past with its modern future.
Several presidents epitomized this by bringing all manner of rustic and woody critter to Washington. Most famous among these was Calvin Coolidge, who loved to play with his raccoons, Reuben and Rebecca. The were quite a hit at the 1927 Easter Egg Roll. Interestingly, Rebecca was slated to be plated for a White House Thanksgiving dinner, but Mrs. Coolidge took a shine to her. (Note that domesticating animals once sought as food can also be part of the rural-urban-industrial transition.) They were so domesticated that Silent Cal once sent the presidential limo to fetch Rebecca when the family was lodging else while the White House was being remodeled. Coolidge was hardly the only one. Benjamin Harrison is a personal favorite. He kept two pet opossums brilliantly named Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection. The former has a Facebook page. I suggest you like him.
The Family Man and Dog
Starting roughly with Hoover, more exotic pets began to fade from the Washington scene and dogs became kings of the castle. Yeah, there were some cats and the high-born Kennedy children had ponies on the grounds, but dogs were the mainstay and occasionally became a focal point of image and scandal. FDR’s Scottish terrier Fala was a fixture, following the president everywhere. Nearly a decade before Nixon’s famous “Checkers Speech,” Roosevelt defended accusations that he had sent a warship to pick up his dog left behind in the Aleutians. It hardly affected FDR’s fourth election. The more important point to make about present day pets is not about scandal, it’s about our sense of what the home and family should be. As pet pampering and pets-as-proxy-children become more common, many Americans expect presidents to treat their various four-legged friends as full-fledged members of the family. Well, except that they are more aggressively marketed than children. But maybe that’s the next evolutionary step in the typology. Pet as Presidential Brand?
For more info, may I suggest a road trip to the Presidential Pet Museum. They’ll be opening their new digs in Glen Allen, VA in 2013.