My First Political Act: Cat fights and political awakenings
“The country at large takes a natural interest in the President’s dogs and judges him by the taste and discrimination he shows in his selection…. Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House.”
AKC Gazette, 1924
To six year old me, this was entirely true…except for the dog part. I was a partisan in the fight between cats and dogs. I was more convinced of the fundamental difference between those animals than I was of the difference between boys and girls. No cooties for me, folks — and keep your “girls rule, boys drool” lingo to the original species! But the unusual part of this story is not that I was a partisan of certain animals — lots of kids are — but rather that I was convinced that this choice had bearing on American citizens’ political life together.
My family was political in the sense that they voted and had opinions, but you were more likely to hear about church politics than national politics at the dinner table. My mother took us with her to vote, we flew an American flag, and we watched the evening news, but I wasn’t one of those kids taken to political rallies in a stroller. I had vague knowledge that politics was important, I suppose, as I did hoard newspapers on the Persian Gulf war, but I did so because it was an important adult thing, not because I understood why it was important.
But I always loved pageantry, and I loved the fourth of July parade. So when I was finally presented with my cats in 1991 — fulfilling a promise made to me to smooth over a move to a larger house in a different school district— and I learned my cats were born during the first week of July, I declared their true birthdays to be the fourth. I doubt that was political; it was probably a decision born out of my love of spectacles.
It was probably the spectacle of the 1992 Presidential election that drew me into the political arena, especially given that Chelsea Clinton could be seen toting around Socks the cat on television. But if you add to that the fact that I had patriotic cats of my own — just look at their birthdays! — how cool I must have felt. Whereas in first grade I had been shy and just looked at pictures of cats, by second grade I had friends to tell long-winded stories about the glories of my cats, my patriotic cats who were given personal fourth of July parades. It meant something that I had a cat now, and it connected me personally with other cat lovers, like the Clintons. And at this point, for me, politics was no longer in the outside world of Annapolis, MD or Washington, DC: it was in my elementary school when my teacher called home to report my first political action — a fight in art class.
The fight happened over a simple issue: I thought Bill Clinton should win because he had a cat, and my best friend thought George Bush should win because he had a dog. It seems it was heated enough to call our parents, and my mother’s reaction was that she would no longer tell me about her politics until I was old enough not to start fights using her convictions.
“But Mom,” I still shout inside my head, “those weren’t your views! They were mine! And why shouldn’t I talk about it — or even argue about it? These are serious issues.”
After this point, even when I would be in the same room as my mother watching the State of the Union or other major political events, I was still separate from her because I had my own gleefully rebellious ideas inside my head. By engaging with politics on my own, sometimes even without adult approval, I began to think of myself as different than my family when it came to politics. Politics was now mine, just as much mine as my pride in my patriotic cats.
Feeling a sense of ownership is vital for the survival of democratic politics, if only because we protect our own much more than things we assign to others. So learning that politics was real and affected me personally, even as a child without any say, and that others — even those who loved me and even agreed with me! — might be upset when I yammer on about politics, fundamentally shaped who I am today. I teach government because of this. I almost always get at least one course evaluation that mentions my extreme enthusiasm about political theory and practice because of this. And, perhaps most importantly, I debate the proper names for pardoned Thanksgiving turkeys with anyone willing to listen as soon as options are announced, and boo whatever president is in office if he does not let us vote to name them properly.
Some things should change upon growing up, however, though my most radical change was probably to add magnets of Bo and Sunny to the fridge. But joking aside, how different is it to think “I like cats, he likes cats, therefore he should be president” from many other considerations adults think about? We choose our leaders based on some “serious” qualifications — knowledge of foreign and domestic policy, gravitas that will do America proud, ability to convince us of the rightness of their views — and some “silly” qualifications — height, behavior and appearance of spouses and children, and ability to eat endless rubber chickens in Iowa and New Hampshire. So why not make choices on the basis of their choice of pets, at least partially?
After all, is this not the perfect response by a great president, Abraham Lincoln, to whether considerations about animals come into the political realm?
When President Lincoln fed a cat named “Tabby” seated next to him at a White House dinner, Mrs. Lincoln asked: “Don’t you think it’s shameful for Mr. Lincoln to feed Tabby with a gold fork?” Mr. Lincoln provided the answer: “If the gold fork was good enough for former President James Buchanan, I think it is good enough for Tabby.”
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