Political Pets

Paw prints in the corridors of power


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It has often been observed that people resemble their pets, just the way they do their spouses. The widely understood notion that there is some deep identity or multiple correspondence between people and their pets explains the obsessive fascination journalists have with the pets of politicians. Politicians understand with increasing sophistication how their pets can be used to convey the most subtly articulated, crucially self-defining messages to the voter. It's no wonder that, at a time when pets are proliferating, politicians are displaying theirs on an unparalleled scale, and newshounds are lapping it up.

To be sure, Roosevelt's dog Falla and Nixon's, Checkers, achieved fame in their lifetimes. But who recalls the names of Amy Carter's Misty Malarkey Yin Yang, or Susan Ford's Chan or Caroline Kennedy's Tom Kitten? These days, political pets are no longer anonymous or obscure; they make public appearances, issue statements, have public relations, fan clubs, and literary careers. Often more popular than the masters they serve, they may be, in this dog-eat-dog world, the only real heroes left.

Consider Socks, the Clintons' cat. The name instantly evokes the sort of cuddly, down-home empathy, the unvarnished familiarity, that this president practices most effectively. That's why Socks attracts an immense amount of mail, more than 200 letters a day, as a consequence of which a fan club was instituted, with its own director and staffed by people who handle the correspondence and publish Socks' fan club letter. Millie, the Bushes' English springer spaniel, also had a fan club, similarly subsidized by the government. Millie, too, sent fans large picture postcards 'signed' with an authentic paw print.

Normally, a signature implies the signer's consent, but in the case of a paw print (forgive me for having to say this), it's not actually Millie or Socks who consents to this use of our money in their names. Why pretend they do? It must be because these celebrity animals are not just cats and dogs, but animal masks ventriloquized by their masters, transmitting their messages.

Socks, once a stray, sent his condolences to Representative Charlie Wilson of Texas when he lost his tailless feline companion, the popular Khyber. Socks wrote: 'As a former homeless cat, I also know that by adopting Khyber from an animal shelter, you gave him many wonderful years that he otherwise might not have had.' (As a literary critic, I'd say Socks' written style bears a remarkable resemblance to that of Hillary Clinton.) According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), there is a monstrous and mounting problem of stray pets in this country. As many as 20 million dogs and cats have to be euthanized every year. Socks used the demise of his colleague to draw attention to the plight of America's homeless, amplifying the message of social compassion this White House seeks to convey. The Clintons themselves are often represented as homeless, having lived in government housing for decades, always having to borrow other people's houses for their vacations. But the first family, like most American families, is bound together not by blood or soil, but by love and mutual responsibility. Socks, without a pedigree, without a home, has reached the White House, the purr-fect metaphor (a catachresis) of the American dream: felix domesticus -- a happy cat at home at last at the top.

Bob Dole's grayish-black schnauzer, Leader, is another important political pet. He was a gift from Dole's wife at the moment of his master's first, brief accession to the position of majority leader in 1984: thus his name. Dole recently paraphrased Harry Truman's cynical insight: 'If you want a friend in politics, get a dog.' Clinton reflected that he wished he had known that before showing up in Washington with a neutered cat. The press has not failed to note the irony: Socks is, presumably, the only male in the White House without a full complement of male organs or a fully developed sexual drive. Still, the example of an irreproachably chaste 'first cat' must rather reassure some of the president's image makers and handlers. Cats are animals of great emotional responsiveness, whose shameless sexuality has traditionally aroused the wrath of those who associate them with the devil -- with witches, for example. A neutered cat has all the positive virtues of its humanlike capacity for affectionate sympathy without the down side -- those bad cat, streetwalking, caterwauling blues.

In the December 1994 issue of his fan club newsletter, Socks directed unusually pointed, partisan sentiments at his Republican predecessor, putting her down in terms that exhibit the worst sort of invidious stereotyping. Socks tells the interviewer: 'Millie, slobbering Millie. Pat-me-on-the-head-I-want-to-be-loved Millie. Claims she wrote a best-selling book. No way. I mean dogs are stupid, you know? Chasing squirrels on the South Lawn. Jogging with her master? What an idiot.' Socks' jealousy seems all the more blind, or hypocritical, since he himself has been widely credited in the press with having shamelessly hustled several birdies up a tree.