But does it really matter whether a president or a presidential candidate has a dog? And should the Obama family get a dog?
To hear the Senator’s wife Michelle tell it, his two young daughters think he should, despite the girls’ allergies. And the American Kennel Club is all set to recommend a “hypoallergenic” purebred (memo: no such thing exists) to the Obama family. High on the AKC’s list is the poodle.
Meanwhile, shelter-animal advocates — let’s call them mutt mavens — are hoping the biracial senator will honor his mixed heritage by adopting a mixed-breed dog and, following the lead of his most famous supporter Oprah Winfrey, going to an animal shelter to do it.
As the virtual canine contingent harnesses “Puppy Power” on behalf of its pet politico, an online retailer hawks bumper stickers with the slogan “Wag More Bark Less,” and North Shore Animal League America has actor Richard Belzer, in Uncle Sam costume, “Calling all Demo-Cats and Republi-canines … We want YOU — to adopt,” we are lulled into believing that pets, especially dogs, are synonymous with patriotism.
But when is it NOT patriotic to keep a pet? When you just don’t have the time or inclination to care for one.
“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” This endlessly quotable quote was first stated (probably with a sarcastic sneer) by one of America’s most famous dog-haters, Harry S. Truman, who, when presented with a sweet Cocker Spaniel named Feller by a dog-breeding constituent, made the dog’s life miserable until the president’s physician kindly offered to adopt the spaniel. Truman’s wisecrack has been relentlessly taken out of context: he was making a statement not about dogs but about capital friends (or the lack thereof) in D.C.
Yet the suggestion, in this election year, is that without a dog one is something other than American. I live with six rescued dogs; does that make me a super-patriot? My harsh critics would say the dog population at my place makes me something other than normal.
Frankly, Senator Obama has enough on his plate without adding a dog to the mix, especially if he and his wife have never had one before. Dog ownership is a project that requires a commitment equal to the lifespan and loyalty of the dog. A dog should be a beloved companion, not a political accessory.
Of course, a candidate who’s intimate with dogs, and has been for many years, is likely to have certain of his or her priorities in order. But this doesn’t mean all dog lovers should automatically endorse McCain just because he happens to have a bunch of pets, including two dogs.
Some great presidents have had dogs, it is true, but dogs do not a good president make. By all accounts, Fala Roosevelt, FDR’s Scottie, had a wonderful life. But when a dog is sidelined from the action, trotted out only at key photo opportunities to soften a politician’s image — as the late chocolate lab Buddy was near the end of the Clinton administration — all good Americans should feel pity for that pet. Constantly wanting for quality attention, a trophy dog leads a life much sadder than any shelter animal’s, having no real bond with any of the busy, important human who dart in and out of view.
In their imaginatively fictionalized satiric movie Dick, screenwriter Sheryl Longin and director-screenwriter Andrew Fleming present the First Pet as a German Shorthaired Pointer named Checkers. Of course, this is deliberate dog-fuscation: The real President Nixon’s Checkers was a Cocker Spaniel, and the dog that lived with him in the White House was an Irish Setter named King Timahoe. But the movie isn’t fudging anything in its depiction of the First Pet as a dog walked by an endless round of strangers, his bowel movements described with terminology appropriate to his station (“The President’s dog doesn’t poop, he does his business,” an aide explains). Dick, the flick, gets to the sad truth of an unlucky White House pet’s existence: it’s a dog’s life.
Concern for the welfare of the nation’s First Dog is, or should be, bi-pawtisan (if you’ll pardon the pun). There’s a reason poor Buddy ran into traffic and died shortly after the Clintons left the White House: his safety and welfare were nobody’s top priority.
The more important question in this election year is: What are the respective positions of McCain and Obama vis a vis animal issues?
With animal-loving Americans becoming enlightened about serious matters such as “the link,” the well-documented — and frightening — connection between cruelty to animals and crimes against people, a candidate’s record on animal issues will start to have serious significance in years to come. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the death penalty for convicted child rapists didn’t go over well with animal lovers on both sides of the political fence — this blogger included. There are genuine animal lovers on both sides of the political fence. The first two that come to mind are Senators John Ensign (R-NV) and Robert Byrd (D-WV).
In 2005, Senator Ensign — a veterinarian by profession — co-sponsored, with Senator Byrd (famed for delivering an emotional speech to the Senate about his beloved dog, Bobby) an amendment to the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill to prohibit the use of any federal taxpayer funds to slaughter horses for food exports. “The time to end this slaughter is now,” Ensign said; Byrd appealed to his colleagues to “end the slaughter of one of the most precious American symbols.” Their bi-partisan effort was approved by an overwhelming majority, 68-29. More recently, Senator Byrd denounced Michael Vick on the Senate floor for the crime of dogfighting; as a lover and rescuer of pit bulls, I will always admire the Senator for saying “I am confident that the hottest places in hell are reserved for sick and brutal people who hold God’s creatures in such brutal and cruel contempt.” (Pit bulls are rarely even perceived as dogs, let alone God’s creatures.)
Meanwhile, two very different politicians from Tennessee, Al Gore, and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, have long made a practice of adopting homeless mutts as pets. These political animals from opposite ends of the park agree that a dog is not an accessory but a family member.
It’s high time for Americans to start thinking of animals as serious topics of political discussion — not merely cute critters that bring comic relief to the White House.
One place to start is a visit to the League of Humane Voters website.