“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” Harry S. Truman once said. True to his own advice, the Truman White House was home to Mike, an Irish Setter, and Feller, a Cocker Spaniel puppy that soon found a place with Truman’s physician, because, ironically, the Trumans actually preferred being “a pet-free family.”
If they did, they have been among the few. Of the 45 individuals who have served as president (through 46 presidencies since Grover Cleveland served two nonconsecutive terms), only three never had a pet in the White House — James Polk, Andrew Johnson (who nonetheless fed the white mice found in his bedroom) and Donald J. Trump, who had a relationship of mutual antipathy with first wife Ivana’s Poodle, Chappy.
“I wouldn’t mind having one, honestly, but I don’t have any time,” Trump said at a Feb. 11, 2019 rally in El Paso, Texas.
“How would I look walking a dog on the White House lawn?…Feels a little phony to me.”
Clearly, the vast majority of presidents haven’t cared how it looked. In addition to the usual dogs, cats and horses, presidents have had grizzly bear cubs (Thomas Jefferson); alligators (John Quincy Adams); tiger cubs (Martin van Buren); goats (William Henry Harrison); pardoned turkeys (Abraham Lincoln); mockingbirds (Grover Cleveland); opossums (Benjamin Harrison, Herbert Hoover); roosters (William McKinley); guinea pigs, lizards, garter snakes and laughing hyenas (Theodore Roosevelt); cows (William Howard Taft); sheep (Woodrow Wilson); squirrels (Warren G. Harding); racoons, bobcats and pygmy hippopotamuses (Calvin Coolidge); and ducks, hamsters and rabbits (John F. Kennedy).
The current president, Joe Biden, has returned the White House to the venerable tradition of housing pets with German Shepherds, Champ and Major, who arrived with great press fanfare in January. (They will divide their time between the White House and the Biden family home in Wilmington, Delaware, when first lady Jill is on the road, a practice put in place after Major — the first shelter dog to live in the White House — bit a guard. This is not the first time a White House pet has gone territorial. Scottish Terrier Barney, son of George W. Bush and famed for his “Barney Cam” view of White House Christmas decorations, once bit a reporter, while Pete, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Terrier Mix, once grabbed a French ambassador by the pants and chased him up a tree.)
The Shepherds’ presence has been memorable in other, more pleasant ways, inspiring the delightful new children’s book “Champ and Major: First Dogs,” among others. White House pets have always been literary. Bill and Hillary Clinton’s tuxedo cat and Labrador Retriever were the subjects of “Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets” by Hillary, even though dear Socks and dear Buddy couldn’t stand each other. Quipped Bill: “I did better with the Palestinians and Israelis than I’ve done with Socks and Buddy.” Bo — one of Barack Obama’s two Portuguese Water Dogs, who really shone at holiday times, patiently sporting rabbit ears for Easter festivities — figured in the president’s “Of Thee I Sing: Letters to My Daughters.”
For sheer creativity, however, few could top Socks and Buddy’s predecessor, Millie, George H.W. Bush’s English Springer Spaniel. Millie — who would have a litter of six pups, appear on TV shows and give her name to a Houston dog park — was the author of “Millie’s Book” (1990), a dog’s eye view of the White House that she “dictated” to her mom, Barbara Bush.
Despite such ingratiating achievements, presidential pets have never been able to extricate themselves from politics. Recently, Newsmax host Greg Kelly went after Champ Biden for being a bit, well, mangy. (Hey Greg, Champ’s 12. That’s 69 in dog years. He’s a newbie senior. Let’s just say you’re lucky you didn’t go after Major.)
It’s the latest in a long line of tails, uh, tales in which a prez pet got caught between his parent and an opponent. Few incidents were more infamous than the rescue of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Scottish Terrier, Fala, accidentally left behind on the Aleutian Islands during a wartime trip, at an alleged cost of thousands of dollars to the taxpayers.
“You can criticize me, my wife and my family,” FDR responded during his 1944 campaign. “But you can’t criticize my little dog. He’s Scotch and all these allegations about spending all this money have just made his little soul furious.”
Roosevelt’s clever turning of the tables in his “Fala speech,” which drew admiring chuckles and applause, is credited with helping him win an unprecedented fourth term. (Before ever entering the White House as president with Irish Setter King Timahoe, Poodle Vicki and Terrier Pasha, Richard Nixon gave a variation of the Fala speech as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s pick for vice president. Accused of having a slush fund, Nixon countered with the poignant “Checkers speech,” saying that the only gift he ever accepted was Checkers, the black-and-white Cocker Spaniel given to his daughters, Tricia and Julie. The “Checkers speech” warmed the heart of Eisenhower’s wife, Mamie, and kept Nixon on the ticket.)
Dogs in particular have been good running mates, so to speak, ever since Warren G. Harding’s Airedale Laddie Boy was covered extensively in the early Roaring ’20s. When Herbert Hoover threw his hat into the presidential ring later in the decade, he acquired King Tut, a Belgian Police Dog that proved a “fetching” companion in coast-to-coast newspaper photographs.
Dogs have also contributed mightily to détente. JFK may have had a potentially earth-shattering standoff with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it didn’t stop Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline, from accepting feisty mixed- breed Pushinka from the Russian leader. Once she passed security — she was, after all, the daughter of a cosmonaut — Pushinka would fall in love with the Kennedys’ Welsh Terrier, Charlie, with whom she had four “pupniks,” as the president called them.
The Kennedys were among the first families — including Gerald Ford’s and George Herbert Walker Bush’s — who walked their own dogs, celebrated their litters and even, in Ford’s case, cleaned up after them.
Once when Ford’s Golden Retriever Liberty made a mess on an Oval Office rug, Ford stopped a Navy steward from addressing it.
“I’ll do that,” the president said. “No man should have to clean up after another man’s dog.”
Whatever else you can say about them, the White House’s fine furry and feathered friends have kept their two-legged parents human.