Man’s Best Friend

12.17.11

Dogs and Presidential Candidates: Man's Best Friend Dominates the Race

Santorum stood up for them, Cain tried to get rid of one, and Romney strapped his to the top of a car. Leslie Bennetts on how man’s best friend came to dominate this year’s race for the White House.

What is it with this year’s presidential campaign and dogs? Politics usually generates more dumb sports metaphors than dog news, but one of many curious aspects of this race is the unusual persistence of canine motifs, which have been popping up with bizarre regularity.

This week Stephen Colbert got into the act by telling viewers of The Colbert Report how he’s planning to fill “the giant, ego-shaped hole” that Donald Trump left in the GOP primary when he cancelled the Trump debate nobody was planning to attend.

After announcing that his own debate will be held on Nat Geo Wild with an animal theme, Colbert said, “My co-host—the Dog Whisperer! Ron Paul talks baloney—boom! Flip him on his back, rub his belly—calm, submissive! Done!”

As we await this invaluable contribution to American politics, primary season is about to begin, and voters will have to make their choices in the polling booth. The evidence to date suggests that assessing the way a candidate treats his dog—not to mention other canines of his acquaintance—might be an edifying way to evaluate his character and fitness for office. Fortunately for all of us, this campaign has offered a wealth of material.

Topping anyone’s list of riveting dog stories has to be the never-gets-old tale of the dear departed Seamus. The fact that Mitt Romney drove his wife and kids on a 12-hour journey to Canada with their freaked-out Irish setter strapped to the roof of the family station wagon (okay, the dog was in a carrier crate, but still...) has to rank among the all-time Great Family Stories in the annals of American politics. Talk about revealing a candidate’s character—could it get any better than this?

And yet this incomparable gem might have been lost to history were it not for the heroic efforts of New York Times Op-Ed columnist Gail Collins, who has made a point of mentioning Romney’s unusual strategy every single time she writes about him (which is, not surprisingly, often).

“How could anyone not want to mention it?” says Collins. “I just love that story, because it came from one of his sons, who thought of it as a story about Romney’s leadership qualities. It’s very Mitt Romney in every way, and it’s very much about control. The guy is rich, but he chose to get them all to Canada for the summer by packing five boys in the car with his wife and putting the dog on the roof. A rich person could have found an easier way to do this.”

Although Collins has performed a vital public service in keeping this story alive for the American electorate to ponder, the news was originally reported by The Boston Globe, in which the anecdote about Seamus was evidently intended to demonstrate his owner’s “emotion-free crisis management.” (It also demonstrated the limits of an Irish setter’s gastro-intestinal fortitude, since Seamus responded to the stress of hurtling along at high speed, trapped in a box, by succumbing to explosive diarrhea that streamed from the car roof down onto its windows, eliciting howls of “Gross!” from the Romney boys).

But during a campaign in which even the Mitt-Bot’s hair seems uptight, this event also illuminates other important issues. “The point, for the son, was that they designated a certain number of rest stops, and Mitt had those stops identified,” Collins explains. “When the dog got diarrhea, Mitt got out and hosed down the dog, but nobody else was allowed to get out of the car, because it wasn’t one of the designated rest stops.” 

Mitt apparently didn’t resort to boxing his sons in a crate to confine them until the next designated stop, so he’s probably good to go with the child welfare authorities; but People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was very unhappy about Seamus’s ordeal, which the group’s president described as “torture.”

“If you wouldn’t strap your child to the roof of your car, you have no business doing that to the family dog,” said Ingrid Newkirk.

The fact that Mitt Romney drove on a 12-hour journey to Canada with their freaked-out Irish setter strapped to the roof has to rank among the all-time Great Family Stories in the annals of American politics.

For his part, Romney claimed that PETA had targeted him because he once went quail hunting, and because he approved a rodeo as part of the Salt Lake City Olympics celebration. “And they’re not happy that my dog likes fresh air,” he said, apparently with a straight face.

(A couple of historical notes: while Seamus is, sadly, deceased, he was, while alive, known to the Romney family as “Mr. Personality,” although it’s hard to imagine why they gave that nickname to the dog instead of reserving it for the master of the house. Before Seamus passed away, he also made a habit of running away from the Romneys’ Boston home. Again, it’s difficult to understand why an ungrateful dog would ever want to leave such a photogenic all-American clan—imagine what Lassie’s reaction would have been to such an act of familial disloyalty! The Romneys eventually dealt with Seamus’s apostasy, and nervous stomach, by fobbing him off on Mitt’s sister, Jane, who lived in California and was said to have space for the dog to roam freely, unfettered by straps, crates or station wagons. Unfortunately for campaign enthusiasts, history has not recorded Seamus’s reaction at being forcibly reassigned to a different home on the other side of the continent.)

In any case, Mitt isn’t the only Republican candidate to have had his personality illuminated by canine-related judgment calls. Herman Cain “suspended” his campaign in the nick of time—only hours before Ginger White, the woman who claims they had a 13-year affair, revealed exclusively to The Daily Beast that the Herminator told his financially-strapped friend to get rid of her Yorkshire terrier, Barry White, as a cost-saving measure.

Granted, Cain had been giving Ginger money for many years (something he himself admitted, although he denied that there was a sexual component to the transaction while conceding that he never told his wife about this unconventional household expense.)

But really—telling Ginger to give away the family dog in order to economize? Yorkshire terriers eat about two kibble bits a week, but only if you persuade them with loving blandishments delivered in baby talk. We are not talking about a major expense here.

Sparing himself the inevitable public uproar about his callous disregard for the emotional welfare of Barry White, not to mention that of Ginger’s children (who were delivered from such heartbreak when their mother lied to Herman and pretended that she’d given the dog to a relative), Cain did everyone a favor by withdrawing from the GOP race.

Other candidates have also had dog issues. Rick Santorum—who owns a German shepherd named Schatzie—won PETA’s praise for pushing legislation aimed at shutting down puppy mills, the mass dog-breeding facilities that often operate under sub-standard conditions. “He’s a man with a heart,” a PETA spokesperson said approvingly. (Take that, Mitt!) Unaccountably, however, Santorum’s status as dog defender has thus far failed to help him in the polls.

Then there’s the inspirational but puzzling story of Rick Perry and the coyote. According to Perry, he went out for a jog and ended up shooting a coyote that “laser-locked” its gaze on his daughter’s Labrador Retriever. Doubters subsequently raised questions about this story, ranging from “Who jogs with a gun?” (Perry claimed he was packing because he’s afraid of snakes) to the nature of the alleged weapon, a Ruger .380 —a lightweight compact pistol that gun enthusiasts describe as a “pea-shooter” fit only for metrosexuals, not macho cowboys from Texas.

Such a sissified pistol is “the firearm equivalent of a ‘sequined purse,’” explained Carol Flake Chapman, who has not only jogged with Perry in a running group but also competed with him in shotgun tournaments. As published in The Daily Beast, Chapman’s thorough investigation of the coyote story failed to resolve lingering questions about the veracity of its gun-toting hero, although it did leave readers with intriguing visions of the GOP’s John Wayne defending a puzzled black Lab by brandishing a sequined purse.

As 2011 draws to a close, commentators keep adding to the year’s bumper crop of doggie items. Speculating about a GOP ticket pairing Romney with Chris Christie, analysts frequently describe the combative New Jersey Governor as playing the role of Romney’s “attack dog.” And pundits can always be relied upon for edifying breed comparisons. On Morning Joe, Mike Barnicle observed that with Republican voters favoring Newt Gingrich over Romney, this means “they prefer the pit bull to the collie.”

But what about Newt Gingrich? He apparently does not have a dog, although his representatives have been known to manipulate that regrettable omission to score political points. Back in the 1990s, during Gingrich’s tempestuous term as Speaker of the House, he was battered by ethics complaints. Ridiculing the accusations, Gingrich’s spokesman counter-attacked by singling out House Minority Whip David Bonior for particular scorn.

“If Newt had a dog, Bonior would accuse him of kicking it. Well, Newt doesn’t have a dog and Bonior doesn’t have a case,” the spokesman proclaimed.

Gingrich’s accusers were nonetheless undeterred, and he was disciplined by the House of Representatives for ethics violations and sanctioned $300,000.

Although Gingrich stubbornly maintains his dogless status—always a mistake when running for office, given the image enhancement potential when adorable puppies are used with strategic finesse—one can still wonder about how he behaves around other canines. Does he have a good rep among his neighbors’ pets? Was he nice to dogs when he was growing up, or was he the kind of kid who pulled their tails and tied their ears together?

Inquiring minds want to know; America takes its dogs very seriously (and lets 42 percent of them sleep in their owners’ beds.) This is a country whose citizens spend $41 billion annually on their pets—more than the gross domestic product of all but 64 countries in the world.

And given Newt’s conduct with at least two ex-wives and one half-sibling, his loyalties are suspect, to say the least. After all, his own half-sister recently criticized his position on gay rights and announced that she won’t support him in 2012. “He is definitely on the wrong side of history when it comes to those issues,” said Candace Gingrich-Jones, a gay rights activist who said she’ll vote for Barack Obama instead.

Perhaps Gingrich-Jones can enlighten us about Newt’s history with dogs—or maybe one of his ex-wives could recall some choice tidbits. While we’re waiting for updates, however, there’s always the White House mascot to contemplate.

As Obama struggles with a gridlocked Washington establishment amid widespread charges that he is unable to get things done, one hopes he’s finding consolation in the company of the family pet. Bo is a neutered black male Portuguese water dog, and he—like his owner—has had to accept significant constraints on his freedom. As Bo could have told the president, were he so inclined: it’s a dog’s life, particularly in the White House.

Since the festive Yuletide season is once again upon us—that wonderful time of year when families gather together and reminisce fondly about good times gone by—this also seems like an appropriate moment to revive the thoughtful holiday idea that Gail Collins came up with last year. As a suitable Christmas gift—full of happy family memories!—for Mitt and his dear ones, Collins suggested “a tasteful Mitt Romney Christmas ornament” depicting Seamus bound to the station wagon roof.

With Christmas approaching fast, pet stores are chockablock with such must-have items as Cavalier King Charles Spaniel tree-topping angels. Surely the nation’s dog-lovers (or at least the ones not facing foreclosure or standing on unemployment lines) can shell out a few extra dollars for Irish setter ornaments to commemorate the valiant contributions to American family life of the late, lamented Seamus.

Christmas Eve is a week from Saturday, and one can only hope that Mitt Romney will be visited by the ghosts of dogs past, present and future. No doubt Seamus, in non-corporeal form if not in the flesh, could come up with a few choice holiday greetings for his former master as the clock winds down on our very own American political Year of the Dog.