American Presidents Find Comfort in Their Pets
President Henry Ford poses with his dog, Liberty, in the White House. (Photo Courtesy of The Newseum)
NEW YORK -- The year was 1952, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower has selected Sen. Richard Nixon to run alongside him as the Vice Presidential candidate.
Drama took hold, though, two months before the election, when Nixon was accused of accepting personal cash from donors.
Nixon denied receiving payment in exchange for influence, but admitted to accepting one gift: A Cocker Spaniel named Checkers, with which his family simply could not part.
"Nixon went on T.V. and said, 'No matter what anybody said, the kids love the dog and we are going to keep him,' " said Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club. "That image on T.V. with the dog and all the love the story connoted really stood to humanize Nixon in a way that had not been done before."
It wasn't the first, or the last, time a pet would come to a famous politician's aide in crafting a particular, family-friendly image.
Dogs, in particular, have been a fixture in the White House since the days of Abraham Lincoln in the early 1860s.
"Lincoln took great comfort from his dog, Jip, and was known to dine with him in the room," said Bernard Unti, a senior policy adviser for the Humane Society of the United States and a historian by training.
"He derived tremendous emotion from his animals. He had dogs and cats and that carried over into other administrations."
Farm life intersected with the Presidential sphere in the 1900s, Unti says, noting that President Theodore Roosevelt kept a stable with horses, among other animals, during his administration.
The 20th century, however, boasted a more pronounced shift in the attention pets in politics received.
"Dogs in the 20th century have certainly become more common," Unti said, noting that President Warren G. Harding's dog, Laddie Boy, played a public role in his master's 1920 campaign for presidency.
According to the White House Historical Administration, Laddie finely represented Harding's campaign slogan of "Return to Normalcy." The dog was granted his own cabinet chair during meetings, and often greeted official delegations.
The furry companions' presence could certainly have had an effect on other politicians and the public alike, Unti says.
"As a general matter, dogs are the emblem of domestic harmony and bliss," he said. "They complete the perfect family picture.
"Even in the case of the Obamas, there is obviously a lot of love in that family but girls' desire to get a dog still shows that there is something needed to complete the picture."
The public's fascination with the Obama family's search to get a puppy -- as well as their keen interest in other former White House dogs -- prompted the Newseum, an interactive museum of news and journalism in Washington D.C., to develop an exhibit titled "First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Pets."
The exhibit, which features photographs of presidents' dogs, opened in mid-November and runs through mid-May.
More than 50 dogs have resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, according to Cathy Trost, director of exhibitions at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
That number trumps the total tally of U.S. presidents by at least one.
"We wanted to show the history of presidents and their hundreds of pets that have lived in the White House," Trost said. "No matter what Americans think of their presidents, they have always loved their pets."
Dogs have traditionally been the most common White House fixture, Trost says, but presidents have occasionally kept cows and horses, among other less traditional family pets.
President Calvin Coolidge apparently had 12 dogs, in addition to a pair of raccoons and a cow; President John F. Kennedy and President Herbert Hoover both kept around 12 dogs in the White House.
"It was Truman who famously said, 'If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,' and that is something that every subsequent president has probably pondered over one or two nights," Unti said jokingly.
The majority of American presidents have taken that bit of President Harry Truman's advice to heart.
"It has become inconceivable for any president to occupy the White House without a pet," Unti said. "The public has certain expectations of the president as a person with an intact nuclear family, and that includes the extended relatives, dog and/or cat and other classic fixtures of American social life."
The attention given to presidents' dogs, however, doesn't always work in their masters' favor. President Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, once posed for a picture with Beagles, Him and Her, in 1964. Johnson jokingly lifted Him off the ground by his long ears -- the public did not find the move as clever as Johnson appeared to.
"Johnson got in a little bit of trouble for that one," Unti said.
The media and public's demonstrated interest in presidential pets has only intensified in more recent political seasons. President George W. Bush's Scottish Terrier, Barney, has made headlines with his own Web page and WebCam -- he also got a bit of perhaps unwanted publicity when he bit a reporter this fall.
The attention given to President Barack Obama's selection of a family pet, though, has been unprecedented, Trost says.
Even Obama himself noted the public's fascination with the family's dog-to-be, saying in a January interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos, "We're closing in on it [the hunt for a dog]. This has been tougher than finding a commerce secretary."
The Newseum's presidential dogs exhibit allows visitors to vote on what kind of dog the Obama family should get; overwhelmingly, Trost says, the public has gotten behind a shelter dog, which has been Obama's expressed preference, as well.
Considering a president with a dog, or any other pet, allows a certain barrier to collapse between him and the public, Trost says.
The common denominator allows for common ground to then ensue.
"I've been amazed at how many people line up in the exhibit area to talk about the presidents' dogs, talk about their own dogs, and discuss the merits of the various breeds the Obamas are considering," Trost said.
When the Obama family actually settles on a White House pooch, the Newseum will have a spot on the wall just waiting for the lucky dog.
"We have a space carved out for its picture, and are watching closely, waiting to see when the dog will arrive," Trost said.
The American public is also standing by.
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