Monday, June 1, 2009

Why the first pup matters - April 16, 2009 column

I should have seen Bo-mania coming. My dentist, of all people, predicted people’s fascination with the presidential pet before Barack Obama was elected president.

During a checkup last summer, my dentist offered some unorthodox campaign reporting advice. Rather than covering what the presidential candidates say about issues, he said, focus on their pets.

“What kind of dog will McCain and Obama have in the White House?

That’s what people care about,” he assured me. I laughed, as much as one can in the dentist’s chair. Good one, Rich.

I’d forgotten the conversation until the Obama family escorted Bo to a panting press corps on the White House lawn Tuesday. Rich was right about the power of pups.

Earlier, President Barack Obama had spoken at Georgtown University, explaining his actions so far to fix the economy and renewing his call for major health care reform.

What captivated the news media -- and by extension the nation -- wasn’t public policy but the personal. The more digitized and impersonal life becomes, the hungrier we are for the human touch.

It’s one reason 200 million people “friend” each other on Facebook, why Twitter and other social networking tools are so popular. We care what other people are doing in their lives. We want to feel connected.

Reminded by a reporter of Harry Truman’s famous line, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” Obama said, “I finally got a friend.”

Most people can’t get enough of the adorable Bo, whose picture has splashed across front pages, the Web and TV. But not everybody is thrilled. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, grumpily declared the coverage of Bo “fairly stupid.”

That’s no way for an aspiring president to talk. Dogs humanize presidents, making them more likeable and more like us. People love that the Obamas are a family and plan to take turns walking Bo.

Anyone who has had a puppy knows the joy of coming home – and that doesn’t change whether you’re coming from work, school or the Oval Office. Puppy owners also know frustration – when that wonderful pup chews favorite shoes.

Even the mini-controversy over whether Obama broke a campaign promise is benign. Candidate Obama said he wanted a dog from a pound, but he also wanted a breed that wouldn’t aggravate daughter Malia’s dog allergies.

President Obama accepted the pure-bred Portuguese water dog as a gift from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Obama did make a donation to the local animal shelter.

With the economy in tatters, it’s a relief to argue over trivia. Besides, Obama made good on the promise to his daughters. They have their dog in the White House.

And so Barack Obama joins the long line of presidents with dogs. Calvin Coolidge felt so strongly about dogs that he declared, “Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House.”

First lady Grace Coolidge posed in a red gown for her official portrait with her white collie, Rob Roy. The painting hangs in the White House.

This and other stories about presidents and their dogs come from the charming book “First Dogs” by Roy Rowan and Brook Janis.

Fala, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s black Scottie, accompanied him even on foreign trips. Roosevelt once sent a destroyer to pick up Fala when he was left behind in the Aleutian Islands.

Republicans complained that the pooch retrieval set taxpayers back $15,000, and Roosevelt responded in a fireside chat, “These Republicans have not been content with attacks on me, my wife or my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala.”

A dog softened hearts to Richard Nixon and saved his political career. In 1952, vice presidential candidate Nixon deflected news about a campaign slush fund when he talked about his cocker spaniel. Nixon’s “Checkers’ speech” was one of the few times he showed his humanity.

In the late 1960s, as antiwar protesters outside the White House chanted, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Lyndon Johnson called his beagles, Him and Her, to his side. “They like me,” Johnson said.

Here’s a prediction. In 2012, if Newt Gingrich is running for president, he’ll have a dog. He may think the hype over Obama’s dog is stupid, but he’s not.
-- Marsha Mercer
(c) 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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