Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Dog issues nothing new for presidential candidates

August 16, 2012 by Scott Bomboy


The renewed debate over Mitt Romney’s vacation with his dog in the 1980s isn’t new political turf and we’ve even dug up one political dog tale that predates the Constitution that could have affected the American Revolution.

A joking jab from President Barack Obama on Wednesday renewed the discussion over Romney’s vacation with his dog, Seamus.

The current canine debate is just the latest in a long line of political stories--where dogs and other pets have been front and center in political campaigns and moments throughout American history. Here's a quick trip through turning points in political pet history.

Herbert Hoover with King Tut

On Wednesday, President Obama made an offhand joke about Romney’s much-discussed vacation, where Romney drove 12 hours in 1983 with his dog, Seamus, in a wind-shielded crate on a roof rack.

The Romney camp responded instantly with a response. Presumably, they knew that at some point, the Seamus issue would pop up, as it did in the GOP primaries.

“President Obama continues to embarrass himself and diminish his office with his un-presidential behavior. This election is about creating jobs, turning around our economy and helping the middle class. The President’s policies have failed on all counts and he will do anything to distract from his abysmal record,” the campaign said in a statement.

Coincidentally, the new wave band Devo released a song on the same day called “Don't Roof Rack Me, Bro," taking Romney to task.

In April, Mitt and Ann Romney gave a sit-down interview with ABC to discuss taxes, foreign policy--and Seamus the dog.

Ann Romney said the dog loved the crate and called the attention to the story “crazy.” The issue had faded away until Obama’s joke.

The Seamus issue has been around since 2007, when The Boston Globe first reported the story when profiling Romney's presidential aspirations.

Washington and General Howe's dog

Some speculate that George Washington’s act of kindness toward a dog might have changed the early course of the Revolution.

In October 1777, at the Battle of Germantown (a few miles north of the National Constitution Center), General George Washington found a dog wandering the front lines after the battle ended.

A huge dog lover, Washington checked the dog’s collar and found its owner was the enemy commander, British General William Howe.

Washington’s troops wanted to keep the dog as a war trophy. The commander wouldn’t hear of it and he summoned his top aide, Alexander Hamilton, to call a truce so the dog could be returned to Howe.

A grateful Howe thanked Washington and there are theories the incident changed his impression about Washington and Americans in general. Howe returned to London the next year after receiving criticism for staying in Philadelphia too long and not aggressively fighting the Colonial forces.

While this might seem like a tall tale, Washington’s note to Howe still exists (in Alexander Hamilton’s handwriting) and can be seen online at the National Archives.

In his public career, Washington had as many as 30 dogs. He even created a breed, the American Foxhound.

Washington and Thomas Jefferson were given dogs as gifts by the Marquis de Lafayette. John Adams and Ben Franklin were also proud dog owners.

The Presidential Pet Museum inventories all the presidential pets since 1789, from Washington to Obama. The collection of presidential pets is a menagerie, including dogs, cats, horses, goats, rabbits, birds, a badger, an alligator, a pair of opossums, a donkey, and a cow.

Andrew Jackson, who had a surly reputation, had a parrot, Poll, that was trained to curse. Poll was actually ejected from Jackson’s funeral for cussing during the sermon.

Abraham Lincoln had the first presidential cat, named Tabby. Lincoln also named his dog Fido.

Predictably, Teddy Roosevelt owned a badger. Unpredictably, Republican Calvin Coolidge had a donkey, reportedly named Ebenezer. (Coolidge also had a hippo named Bill that he donated to the National Zoo.)

Hoover and King Tut

It was Herbert Hoover, Coolidge’s successor, who put presidential pets in the political spotlight. Hoover actively campaigned with King Tut, his Belgian shepherd.

King Tut actually went out on tour with Hoover and his picture was sent to thousands of voters, in an effort to soften Hoover’s image.

Hoover won in a landslide.

But it was two other dogs that changed the course of elections in 1944 and 1952 that many people remember as political pawns.

FDR and the "Fala" speech

During his third presidential term, Franklin D. Roosevelt struggled with GOP opponent Thomas Dewey, until Republicans criticized FDR’s Scottish terrier, Fala.

The GOP alleged Roosevelt left the dog behind by accident in Alaska and sent a warship, at great taxpayer expense, to retrieve Fala.

In September 1944, Roosevelt’s “Fala" speech showcased his skills as an orator and convinced voters that he was vital and healthy enough for a fourth term.

“These Republican leaders have not been content with the attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog. Fala,” Roosevelt said.  “I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself—such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog!”

Nixon and the "Checkers" speech

Richard Nixon used his own dog speech to rescue his spot on the 1952 presidential ticket.

Nixon had been accused of taking money from supporters to finance an election fund for his future 1956 Senate campaign. The Democrats demanded Nixon quit the race in September 1952, and his running mate, Dwight Eisenhower, was considering dropping Nixon from the ticket.

In the equally famous "Checkers" speech, Nixon told a nationwide television audience of 60 million viewers that he didn’t use the money for personal expenses. But he wouldn’t return one campaign gift.

“It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he'd sent all the way from Texas. … And our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all 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 said.

Phone calls flooded Republican headquarters to support Nixon, and Eisenhower kept him on the ticket.

Presidential pets in recent years

Since Fala and Checkers, presidential pets have been elevated to almost a cabinet-level position.

George H. W. Bush’s dog, Millie, received the semi-official title of First Dog, and even  authored a book (along with a ghost writer). Socks the cat represented the Clintons in office, while George W. Bush’s dog, Barney, starred in annual videos for the media.

Bill Clinton’s other pet, Buddy the dog, died in 2002 when he was run over by car in Chappaqua, New York. Buddy was being watched by Secret Service agents (the former president was away at the time), who lost track of the dog.

Clinton later acquired a chocolate lab named Seamus as Buddy's successor.

The Washington Post's Sarah Kliff points out a study that appears July’s issue of the journal Political Science and Politics, where researchers say the White House has used it pets since the 1960s as PR props during times of political scandal and international tension.

The researchers say more study has to be done on the topic, but it’s a groundbreaking "contribution to a research program that will bring the dog into political analysis.”

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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