Presidential Pooches, Pussycats and Others:
Why are there pets in the White House, and why do we care?
President Calvin Coolidge once claimed, “Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House.” Keeping furry friends has proven to be a traditional way the first families of the United States make the White House their own, though these pets are often as mischievous as they are loving. Even George Washington kept a fleet of dogs during his presidency, breeding them to start a new lineage that is now known as the American foxhound. The gigantic hunting dogs were given humorous names such as Sweet Lips, Tipsy, Tipler, Drunkard, and Vulcan. According to accounts of life at Washington’s residence at Mount Vernon, Vulcan once stole an entire ham from the kitchen and ran with it clenched in his firm jaw, ruining an important meal made by Martha. Since then, every president has kept some sort of family pet in the White House. Pets are often seen as an indicator of character and reflection of a man, so a president’s public image could be either positively or negatively affected by his relationship with the family pet.
Although owning pets was always common for the president, the idea was not sensationalized into an important characteristic until the twentieth century. Famous presidential pets tend to arise during eventful times. The American presidential elections of 1932 was one of the most important elections in modern history, as voters chose who was going to lead them out of the Great Depression, and soon after, the Second World War. The country was in a state of chaos with the unemployment rate at nearly 24%, large industries hanging on by a thread, and price changes that struck the farming families and agriculture business with a force. Factory closings, farm foreclosures, and bank failures increased, while unemployment soared. Herbert Hoover, the incumbent Republican president, faced unprecedented challenges, as the majority blamed him for the wave of poverty across the nation. The entire presidential election campaign revolved entirely around the cause of this disastrous economic situation, whether Hoover was to blame, and what exactly needed to be done.
This is how a young, ambitious governor of New York, the fifth cousin of a previous commander in chief, came to the presidency. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) revitalized the hopes of the American people with a powerful message of reform. During the election, it was not clear what changes FDR could implement that would best benefit the people, but nonetheless, his campaign sold with a sweeping victory. He moved into the White House with a proud wife and five children, but there was something missing in his life, an ally.
Despite the odds against him, FDR became one of America’s most iconic presidents, spending the most time in office, and witnessing one of the most eventful periods in history. Through his four eventful terms, his public image rose and fell with a political climate that evolved frequently and dramatically. FDR faced changes in policy, staff, and even his family. Through his last two terms as president, there was at least one political force that was a constant in politics and life, his trusty dog. Formally known as Murray the Outlaw of Falahill, Roosevelt changed the pup’s name from Big Boy to a tribute to a Scottish ancestor. He was born in 1940, at the beginning of the president’s historic last term, and joined the Roosevelt at the White House shortly after.
Fala, as he was nicknamed by FDR, was a lively, jet black Scottish terrier who shook up the White House with his boundless of energy and love for his family, unaware that his human companions were different from those of most dogs. Fala was especially memorable to the American public in her top-dog treatment and extremely close relationship to the president. Every morning, he received a bone delivered on a presidential platter at the foot of FDR’s bed to start a demanding day as the White House First Pet. Keeping furry friends has proven to be a traditional way the first families of the United States make the White House their own, though these pets are often as mischievous as they are loving. Even though he didn’t technically live in the White House, George Washington kept a fleet of hunting dogs through his presidency on the grounds of his Mount Vernon estate. This terrier proved himself to be more valuable than just a stuffed prop during his debut as an honorary army private during the second World War.
In his inaugural address, FDR assured the American people, “This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” These spirits (along with the revolutionary New Deal) helped lift the country out of the Great Depression, but on the horizon, an even more frightening future loomed. Fala made his residence in the White House only one short year before the fateful day December 7, 1941. The attack on Pearl Harbor shook this “great Nation” to its core, and forced President Roosevelt’s hand. The United States would enter the Second World War. The army would use all the help it could get, even if it came from a tiny Scottish Terrier.
In general, war is expensive. Compared to others, World War II was especially expensive, as The United States spent more than $300 billion fighting the Axis Powers and supplying our Allies. This spending would be equal to more than $4 trillion today. It was a frugal time for the American people full of reusing, budgeting and making do without, but not for the First Dog. During the day, Fala would beg for food from the White House staff, and receive presidential treatment. He was so cute that he was fed all the time and became sick, so much so that the staff was asked not to feed him extra food. At night, he slept in a special chair at the foot of the president’s bed. Fala traveled with the president on long and short trips by train, car, or boat, as personal and diplomatic support. Although the public was fond of Fala, some ordinary Americans did not always appreciate seeing the pup living lavishly in the White House while they were struggling at home.
The war was taxing on the country’s military resources, economic reserves, and even the homefront. Funding the war grew from an issue for congress to an issue for the nation. It was no option to drop out of the war, so the government had to get funding from a different source. The campaign for war bonds and home donations materialized from this need, along with public drives to lend a helpful hand in any ways possible. The home front became the newest battleground in the U.S. as women started to go to work in factories and families had to make up for lacking resources that went overseas. Donations and bonds could help the government and military win the war of funding one of the most costly wars in modern world history. All it took was one small donation at a time.
The United States Treasury offered Americans a series of War Bonds they could purchase during the war, and encouraged independent donations. A War Bond was considered an honorable investment in one’s country and one’s own financial future. It seemed that everyone was on board with the cause, as posters picturing Uncle Sam or a soldier on the battlefield implored people to do their part. Even celebrities like Bob Hope, and Frank Sinatra pitched in when they traveled the country putting on live shows or radio programs promoting War Bond sales.
In the heat of campaigning for war funds, the federal government started a donation collection to which an individual could donate a dollar in exchange for a certificate deeming someone of their choice an honorary Army Private. Similar to celebrity advertising, this was designed to appeal to popular masses as an exciting way to contribute to your country and feel connected to the soldiers abroad. Initially, families used this as a clever way to let their kids be a part of the war effort. There was a trend of sending the certificate as gifts to loved ones, and from this, White House advisors saw a great opportunity for some positive press. They could not have imagined that a small P.R. moment would become a movement across the country.
President Harry Truman once mused, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” It is likely that this quote was inspired by his predecessor, FDR, as it was no question that he kept Fala in the political loop. A presidential dog’s influence can span beyond just the sphere of public thought and conversation into substancial actions. In addition to supporting the family as a pet, Fala’s duties included accompanying the president as Roosevelt attended to important administrative matters. In fact, he was present at so many presidential (and often classified) events that he had a code name assigned to him by the secret service. His presence was so frequent and visible that it was a concern for national security. Agents referred to him as the Informer, because the pup always gave away his owner’s location with his lively manner and frequent yips. Even during important meetings and addresses, Fala tagged along as the right-hand-dog. His popularity with the press and the public is what inspired the White House advisors and Roosevelt family to make a $1 donation in Fala’s name, thinking it would be a playful blurb of news during a serious time for the nation.
Fala was proud to sport his honorary title, and the Roosevelts thought it might be a small gesture of unity for the public. Although this was obviously meant to be a clever, but short-lived publicity move to campaign for the White House, Fala’s donation had an effect on people no White House member could have predicted. His cheeky award blew up in the newspapers and on the radio. The public loved any news that gave indication of Roosevelt family’s life, and they were especially fascinated with Fala.
After seeing the dog’s generosity across the news, many American families followed Roosevelt’s move and donated in their dog’s names as well. It was not unusual for the dog to receive fan mail, Fala had so much that he was actually assigned his own secretary assigned handle his the letters. Before the famous donation, his most famous letters came from a poodle, Abigail, who scolded Fala for chasing a skunk and causing a lot of unpleasantness for everyone involved. Although he had previously received these letters of thanks and stories, Fala’s mailbox was overwhelmed after the public followed his donation trend. This small gesture started a national craze, and hundreds of thousands of dogs became honorary privates from his influence. Americans saw their president’s dog contributing to the cause, so why shouldn’t theirs?
These thousands and thousands and thousands of donations meant significant gains in funds for the war effort. Considering that the celebrity responsible was actually scotty dog who knew nothing of his role, this fundraising was unheard of. Even the President Roosevelt was shocked by the amount of influence his little Fala could have. Not only had the president become something of a celebrity from increased news time and radio shows, the fame and obsession had even reached the family dog. This example shows how these pets become public figures that can cause concrete repercussions to american people and policy. The idea of a First Dog became popularized and sensationalized with Fala, but it would not end with him. The president, his aides, and future administrators all took note of the importance the role could have.
This historic pup witnessed more global events than many humans ever will, and was a surprisingly strong tool for FDR in diplomatic relations. Fala’s first historic moment was his trip in 1941 on the U.S.S. Augusta, where he witnessed FDR and Winston Churchill sign the Atlantic Charter. This wartime agreement between the United Kingdom and the United States was pivotal during the Second World War, as it defined Allied goals for a post-war world. The agreement determined mutual goals, and was later signed by allies of the two countries, providing a strong basis and influence for the future United Nations. Fala’s friendship with Churchill’s poodle gave Roosevelt extremely good press, as he appeared to form strong relationships and take initiative to end worldwide conflict. Strategically, it was wise for FDR to include Fala in these negotiations as a political tool distract reporters and keep stories in a positive light. This is a common effect that a presidential pet can have, loving animals catch the eyes of photographers and give personality and humanity to potentially complicated state matters.
The media and news press helped define the role of the White House pet better than any single president could have by understanding how the public wants to know their leaders on a more personal level. Although the press chooses when to write about these special furry friends, the president and his staff often calculate just the right moments to host a dog show. For example, a family dog can help a president create more of a “common man” image of himself during declining popularity. To counter this, some advisors theorize that is it best to keep the pets out of the spotlight during nationwide times of economic hardship or war to prevent an image of being unaffected by common struggles. Secondly, reporters might actually increase their pet reporting in good economic times or when presidents are popular to keep the nation’s perspective positive and hopeful for the future.
Fala was obviously popular in the news, but popularity with the press does not guarantee only positive headlines. The dog’s most tense moment with the press was in 1944, when he accompanied his owner on a trip to the Aleutian Islands. The trip seemed to have been executed without a hitch, until rumors surfaced that little Fala had accidentally been left behind on the way out. Rumor had it that Fala was forgotten, and a distressed FDR sent a Navy destroyer ship to rescue him at the taxpayer’s expense. Republicans jumped at the opportunity to paint the president as frivolous and elitist to the American people, just in time for election season. Roosevelt passionately defended his pet in a campaign speech, insisting that “his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself. But I think I have a right to resent, to object, to libelous statements about my dog.” In other words, you can mess with the president, but don’t come near his precious pup. Moments such as these remind the White House and first family that in this age, the press is always watching for fatal mistakes, even from the pets.
Although he was an exceptional White House pet, Fala is only one of many who helped shaped presidential, and therefore political, history. Statistically, about half of US households include a dog, democrats and republicans alike. American culture places great value on family and the idea of common working-class values. This common ground is powerful, and a first dog gives a president the rare opportunity to be seen, even for a fleeting moment, as just an average, animal-loving citizen.
In the public’s eyes, American presidents should represent common principles, and are held to the highest moral standard. Pets are an important part of many American families’ lives, and first families are no exception. Especially in a career and home setting that can be full of inconsistency and distrust, having animal companions for emotional support is especially important. A pet’s love is true and unconditional, unlike the support of a president from his peers and ultimately his country. As a public figure, they represent the country’s fundamental values and aspirations, convey meaning about complex and confusing events, and update the American narrative for their times.
President Richard Nixon attempted to harness the power of this perception during his famous “Checkers” speech of 1952. He was not even president at the time, Eisenhower had just chosen him as Vice President of his ticket, but the address left an impression on the American people. Allegations surfaced that he had misused donations, clouding the otherwise spotless campaign. Nixon attempted to clear the air during a televised speech on September 23rd, denying the exploitation of $18,000 worth of donations. The candidate focused on his outlined his modest financial means and went on the offense against his opponents. He defended only one campaign gift, a black-and-white puppy from a supporter in Texas named Checkers.
Nixon claimed that Checkers was the one gift he refused to return, the dog was beloved to his wife and children. The speech was heard by around sixty million Americans, achieving the largest television audience tuned in to that time. The ticket was boosted by an outpouring of public support for the humble and relatable Vice President to-be. September 23 is now National Dogs in Politics day, commemorating one of the earliest examples of a politician using television to directly sway voters. Using the image of family and compassion, the puppy gave emphasis to the approachability to his appeal. Charisma in the public eye saved Checkers and Nixon alike, strengthening the president and dog bond for future leaders.
It is no debate that the American presidency plays an important role in both the public and political sphere of the United States, but how has the expectations for our Commander In Chief evolved with our ever-changing society? When the founding fathers created the unique role in state, they considered it to be one of limited power, responsible for enforcing laws and commanding the military. However, what they did not truly account for was the emerging importance of a Chief of State, and that heading the government would eventually mean representing the entirety of the American people. In the public’s eyes, American presidents should represent common principles, and are held to the highest moral standard. As a public figure, they now represent the country’s fundamental values and aspirations, convey meaning about complex and confusing events, and write the American historical narrative.
The newest measurement of citizen’s satisfaction with the president is his celebrity, and how the people can understand him as a moral leader, but also a moral person. The American people hold strongly to their values of family, faith, and freedom, and expect that their leader does the same. A president’s public image is determined by how the people understand his connection to these values, in combination with the policies that carry them out. The idea of a president’s public persona is not completely new, although it has been revolutionized by the increasing influence of the news media, and development of technology that increased communication. The newspaper, radio, television, computer, and iphone each changed the way we communicate with our leaders and receive news. Because of this widespread expansion of social communication gives us new access to the lives of the famous people we admire, and from this, the “celebrity president” was born. This is both a burden and a benefit to the office, as the pressure of fame exacerbates the immense pressure of the job, while also existing as a useful tool in modern political strategy used to manipulate the press and the people. The president and the first family are the closest figures to a royal family the United States has, and the people react by obsessing over their personal lives as much as they would for the Queen of England, or perhaps a popular movie star.
This social charisma has become somewhat of a requirement of the president, if he cannot act adeptly to sticky situations with charm and grace, his favor will fall. H. Mark Roelofs assesses the importance of the president’s public image in relation to his personality in The Prophetic President: Charisma in the American Political Tradition, where he states, “…the President’s role as ‘tribune of the people’ is the most important and powerful in American politics but also dangerously and inherently unstable.” Roelof uses a biblical comparison of the president as a prophet, and claims that this persona is critical to maintaining national identity and unifying legitimacy within the government. In this way, our political and entertainment cultures have overlapped, starting in the twentieth century and continuing today. This process has permanently changed the role of the president of the United States from a behind-the-scenes legislator to a public leader bound by the rules of fame.
Personality and charisma can often predict where a president will be more successful in office. Dean Simonton is a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies presidential personality. He believes that personal characteristics greatly influences an administration from examples such flexibility and the need for affiliation. Early presidents had less charismatic personas because the job required less of them; they gave fewer public speeches and most decisions were made behind closed doors. Simonton notes that leaders evolved in charm as media spread across the country. Television and radio transformed the way the White House communicated with other politicians and the population they served. This influence can have concrete political consequences, as an agreeable president has an upper hand manipulating congress and other bodies into cooperating towards political goals. According to the expert, our presidents have evolved from the two-dimensional founding fathers to booming personas in 3D modern politics.
Changes in political culture benefitted young, charismatic leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, inspiring Americans to emulate them in different aspects of their lives such as fashion or family values. For others who lack the personality to take instantly to fame, the public took far less interest in them and were more likely to withdraw support in hard times. Lyndon Johnson suffered historic setbacks, as people learned more about him, they found that his personal attributes weren’t appealing. He was a manipulative workaholic in his personal life, and failed master and woo the media of his time, especially television. Richard Nixon also failed on all the same counts despite his early success, giving an overly paranoid and controlling impression. It is significant that these two particular presidents ended up with so little positive luster, for it negatively affected their image and therefore their ability to govern.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is considered one of the first presidents to truly harness the charisma to create effective, desireable leadership. Roosevelt defined himself in a positive way that attracted fans, and adjusted for what the public needed from its leader during that specific time. The president had an emotional connection to the greater people of the country that was unprecedented for American leaders. FDR made his policy personal, and his communications sincere. This relationship is exemplified in his death, as the funeral train grinded along, it is reported that there was a man found weeping along the route. He was asked how he knew the president. “I didn’t know him,” the man replied. “But he knew me.” Roosevelt knew the people unlike any predecessor, and therefore the people desired to know him as well.
He entered the emotional life of his fellow citizens, and this stemmed interest in his policy, but also his personal life. A key factor to his widespan success was his ability to unify the country through his words. Specifically, he is credited with the ingenious public relations strategy of his “Fireside Chats” on the radio which connected the public with his policies and ideas, fostering support. On radio, he was able to quell rumors and explain his changes to the nation. His tone and demeanor communicated self-assurance during times of despair and uncertainty. Roosevelt entered American homes through the radio as not just a president, but a trustworthy friend.
President Barack Obama became the celebrity president that perfectly defined the position, it didn’t take long for him to establish a superstar status that broke White House records. His campaign rallies had historic turnouts for miles, and his followers flocked to him like fanatic fans of celebrities. His fame was so powerful, his campaign opponent, John McCain, aired a negative ad about it. The ‘Celebrity’ ad questioned Obama’s motives and abilities to lead because he was so popular among the masses. The narrator says, “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world, but is he ready to lead?” However, this counterpoint could not stop the tidal wave of support for Obama from the American public. With his election in 2008, the metamorphosis of the celebrity president was complete.
Even after his initial glamour faded, Obama embraced his popularity with the press and used it for policy advantages. He expertly navigated the rise of social media, and won the hearts of young people by carrying his new, hip message on twitter. This is an evolution of the ‘common man’ persona other presidents aimed for, Obama became not only relatable, but available to the average American. He extended the president’s reach beyond typical politics by associating with other cultural stars such as entertainers and athletes. Relationships with celebrities like Beyonce Knowles and husband Jay-Z only added to his luster, somehow without taking from his common man connection. His communication and popularity parallel the United States’ changing culture; as people change, so do politics.
Few White House pets gained as much excitement and recognition as the Obama’s adoption of the two Portuguese Water Dogs, Sunny and Bo. During his election victory speech in Chicago soon after the final count, the president-elect announced that he would begin the search for puppies for his two young daughters. It was joked in Washington that the decision of what dog would join the family was treated with the same anxiety and seriousness as cabinet elections. As soon as they joined the family, Sunny and Bo were a hit and a national treasure, and the Obama family benefitted from the puppy love.
Pets are an important part of many American families’ lives, and first families are no exception. Especially in a career and home setting that can be full of inconsistency and distrust, having animal companions for emotional support is especially important. There is little support comparable to a panting ball of energy bounding across the White House lawn to warmly greet his owner with unconditional loyalty. A pet’s love is true and unconditional, unlike the support of a president from his peers and ultimately his country.
The body of American press truly created and defined the role of the president better than any single leader could have by understanding how the public wants to understand their leaders on a more personal level. Because we, as a nation, now treat our presidents as celebrities, their personal lives become public. From here we see the obsession with the first family, and therefore the presidential pets. From Roosevelt to Obama, we care about the people -and animals- that represent our people and country.