By Joe Darby
Most dogs — even those belonging to the Presidents — don’t get involved in politics.
But it’s happened a couple of times, during the terms of Franklin Roosevelt and later Richard Nixon. FDR, back during World War II, had a beloved Scottish terrier called Fala, a pup he had received as a gift. Fala became so popular he was featured in some of the movie news reels of the day and just about every American knew of him.
Well, in 1944, Fala accompanied the President on a trip to the Aleutian Islands off of Alaska. It was during the 1944 presidential election campaign and some Republicans started to spread a story that Roosevelt had forgotten the dog on the islands and sent a Navy destroyer back to get him, at tax payers’ expense. FDR answered the charge by saying, “…I don’t resent attacks, and my family don’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them…his Scotch soul was furious.” The public loved it and Roosevelt was reelected quite easily.
This column is my third and final installment on presidential dogs, pets who were loved not only by the First Families but by much of the American citizenry also.
Like Roosevelt, Nixon also had the occasion to answer accusations and used his dog Checkers to strike back. During the 1952 election campaign, news stories had surfaced that Nixon had a “secret fund” created by wealthy supporters and that Nixon personally benefited from the money. Nixon was running for vice president on the Dwight Eisenhower ticket. There was talk that Eisenhower would drop Nixon from the ticket.
Nixon, in a televised speech, said he had come from a poor background, had worked hard to achieve what he had and that the fund was used only for political and campaign purposes. He admitted that, yes, he had received a gift that he kept. It was his dog Checkers. He said his little girls loved the dog and that no matter what, his family was going to keep the pup. Well, the public loved that speech also and Nixon was kept on the ticket and went on to be vice president and later President himself, although he had to resign in disgrace in 1974 because of the Watergate scandal.
Most dogs brought nothing but good publicity for their presidential owners, but Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded in bringing down much criticism on himself when, in the presence of a Life magazine photographer, he lifted one of his beagles by its ears. The public was outraged and Johnson issued an apology. He truly loved the dogs and said he was surprised at the uproar because he thought the dog enjoyed being pulled up by its ears. The incident was just one more problem in Johnson’s troubled presidency, which was beset by the Vietnam War.
Every President since Theodore Roosevelt, who was in the White House from 1901 to 1909, has had dogs, except for Donald Trump, and most Presidents before TR had them too. This is probably due to the fact that the chief executives really enjoyed the dogs, but that they also realized the American public does also, and wished to appear in good favor as animal lovers.
President Gerald Ford garnered favorable publicity when his golden retriever Liberty gave birth to a litter of nine babies in 1975. The process took almost eight hours and First Lady Betty Ford was with Liberty to offer moral support the whole time. News photos of the President and his family members with the new arrivals were spread nationwide.
Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s had a mixed breed named Grits, but the dog did not get along well with the family cat, Misty, and Carter never tried to use Grits in any type of publicity shots. Word was that he was not overly fond of the canine.
Ronald Reagan had a big, rambunctious Bouvier des Flandres, who weighed in at more than 70 pounds and who would often forcefully tug the President around the White House grounds on a leash. There was a famous photo of the dog, Lucky by name, pulling Reagan along as a laughing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher follows along behind. Lucky also often failed in her house training skills and, although she was much loved, she was eventually moved to the Reagans’ California ranch.
George H.W. Bush and family had a beagle that became well known because first Lady Barbara wrote a book, “Millie’s Book,” fashioning it as if the dog herself had written it. It became a best seller and the $1.1 million profits were donated to Barbara’s literacy foundation. The President also invoked Millie during his bid for reelection in 1992. Referring to opponents Bill Clinton and Al Gore, he said, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than those two bozos.” Alas for Millie, the bozos won.
The Clintons had their own dogs, including a popular lab named Buddy, who probably didn’t think his boss was a bozo. George W. Bush had Barnie the Scottish terrier and they even posted a Barnie Cam on the White House website, which proved to be quite popular.
Barack Obama had Bo, a Portuguese water dog, almost certainly the first of that breed to live in the White House. Bo lived to be 12 and passed away just last year. Joe Biden has his well-known German shepherd, Major Biden, a rescue dog from a humane society in Delaware, the President’s home state.
Our Presidents have ranged from greatness to incompetence and rascality. But the great majority of them are just like us in at least one way. They realized that dogs are truly man’s best friend.