Political Pets

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

It is not surprising that Socks should feel envious of Millie,
who has, after all, achieved immense literary success. In
Millie’s Book, Barbara Bush transcribed the musings of her
liver-and-white spaniel, who speaks, often eloquently, but doesn’t
write, whose full family name is Mildred Kerr Bush, and whose
popular reflections on life in the White House have earned hundreds
of thousands of dollars for the charity she doggedly supports.
Socks may bear a professional grudge toward a first pet whose
master publicly credited it with a grasp of foreign policy. You
remember when George Bush said during the 1992 campaign, ‘My dog,
Millie, knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos,’
kindly, gently referring to Clinton and Al Gore. Bush, at that
point an underdog, was no doubt exaggerating, insulting the
Democrats’ grasp of foreign policy and flattering Millie’s.
Nevertheless, one picture in Millie’s Book shows her
assuming a contemplative pose in the Oval Office, surrounded by
President Bush and his closest national security advisers: Brent
Scowcroft, Bob Gates, and John Sununu. Millie laconically glosses
the photograph: ‘I often sit in on the morning briefings.’

One of the most interesting moments in recent pet history
occurred when a capital magazine insulted Millie. It called her the
ugliest dog in Washington (which even Barbara Bush acknowledges to
be true). Leader came chivalrously to her rescue in a press release
that denounced the attack as ‘an arf-front to dogs everywhere.’
Leader’s newsletter, issued by Dole’s office, is called News
from the Leader
. It comes beautifully printed on excellent
paper, embossed with a photograph of the schnauzer looking old and
wise and doleful. In it he warns: ‘If the editors of
Washingtonian keep up these dogmatic attacks, they had
better watch their step — literally watch their step.’ Have the
politicians all gone — literally — to the dogs?

Excerpted with permission from The New
(July 10, 1995). Subscriptions: $69.97/yr. (48 issues)
from Box 602, Mt. Morris, IL 61054-8053. Back issues: $3.50 from
1220 19th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036.

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