… a dog.
David Rothkopf writing at the Daily Beast observes that We Have a President Who Loves Dogs—and Not a Minute Too Soon. Almost every president has had a pet, and the ones who have not suggest that someone who can’t care for an animal has no business leading the nation.
A major controversy hit Joe Biden this week, as the White House dog was “rehomed” and a bouncy, young replacement, Commander, moved into the First Doghouse.
Farewell, Major. If it is any consolation to you, two House impeachment committees voted to rehome the last human elected to live in the White House, a man who did a lot more damage than simply nipping at visitors. He was far from being a very good boy and you are one, so we wish you well in your new life.
That said, we have to admit that Commander is cute. I mean real, real cute in that way that bounding, loose-jointed, rabbit-eared, endlessly optimistic, furniture-chewing, ball-chasing German shepherd puppies so often are. And we are pleased to be reminded yet again that our current president, the most powerful man in the world, is at his very core, a dog person.
The last occupant of the White House famously did not like dogs. And he was a dick. Those two facts are not unrelated. It does not mean that if you do not like dogs you will end up being the most corrupt president in American history or a racist, sex-abusing coup-plotter. It’s just more likely.
Living with a dog requires something crucial that Donald Trump did not have: empathy. You see, dogs can’t talk. They communicate all the time. But not with words. So, to care for them, to enjoy them, to get to know them, you have to be attentive to the clues they give you, their moods, their expressions, the way they lick their chops when they want a treat. And people who take the time to connect with animals are much more likely to be able to do the same with humans, to feel compassion, tenderness, and appreciation for other lives.
Biden is one of those people. In fact, the qualities that make him want to, need to, share his home with his dogs are precisely the same as those that led many to choose him over Trump.
They are the kind of qualities that we value in friends and colleagues. They are the kind that we celebrate at this time of year. They are the kind that seem especially important in the Washington of today, when the Joe Manchins of this world kick the needy and hungry children of America to the curb to serve their greed-driven, discredited, hypocritical, immoral agendas. (It turns out a lump of Santa’s coal has nothing on the lump of Big Coal Manchin just put in our stockings.)
Of course, having a dog is not a guarantee that a president will be a person of character. Nixon had Checkers, after all—also a Yorkie, a poodle and an Irish setter. In fact, almost all presidents have had dogs. Washington is considered not only the father of our country but also of a breed of dogs he helped create, the American foxhound. Jefferson, as you might expect, chose to focus on a French breed, the Briard. Franklin Roosevelt had a famous pup named Fala who received his own fan mail and also eight others… including a German shepherd named Major.
Not having a dog or any kind of furry friend, however, is a warning sign. Other than Trump, only two previous presidents had no pets while in office. One was Andrew Johnson, who Trump aspired to emulate and who, like Trump, was impeached and disgraced and refused to attend his successor’s inauguration. The other was James K. Polk, best known for starting the Mexican-American War (something Trump always hoped he might do.)
In the interest of animal equity, I should note that other presidential pets have included cats (Lincoln, Hayes, McKinley, Wilson, Coolidge, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43), horses (Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Tyler, Taylor, Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, Arthur, Kennedy), ponies (Taylor, Fillmore, Grant, Kennedy) and donkeys (Washington, Coolidge). They’ve included many kinds of birds including parrots (Washington, Madison, Jackson, McKinley), mockingbirds (Jefferson, Cleveland), canaries (John Tyler, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Kennedy), an eagle (Buchanan), a turkey (Lincoln), fighting roosters (Jackson, McKinley), songbirds (Wilson, Coolidge), a goose (Coolidge), ducks (Kennedy), parakeets (Eisenhower, Kennedy), lovebirds (Johnson), and a yellowbird (Coolidge).
Presidential menageries have also included: grizzly bear cubs (Jefferson), silkworms (John Quincy Adams), alligators (John Quincy Adams, B. Harrison), tiger cubs (Martin Van Buren), cows (William Henry Harrison, William Howard Taft, Bush 43), goats (William Henry Harrison, Lincoln, Benjamin Harrison), rabbits (Lincoln, Arthur, Kennedy), opossums (B. Harrison, Hoover), a ram (Wilson), sheep (Wilson), a squirrel (Harding), a raccoon (Coolidge), a bobcat (Coolidge), lions (Coolidge), a pygmy hippo (Coolidge), a wallaby (Coolidge), a duiker (Coolidge), a black bear (Coolidge), and hamsters (Kennedy, Johnson).
And then there’s Teddy Roosevelt, who had guinea pigs, ponies, a hen, a lizard, a macaw, a garter snake, a black bear, a rat, a badger, a pig, a rabbit, cats, a laughing hyena, an owl and a one-legged rooster—in addition to his many dogs.
I’m not saying that having an alligator or grizzly bears around the house will necessarily improve a president’s non-verbal communications skills, but it couldn’t hurt. And when it comes to dogs, the reality is they are not just our pets, they are, as my wife, Carla, likes to point out, our teachers. They teach us to look for clues about how others feel. They remind us to prioritize our responsibility to others. In fact, day-in and day-out they offer us countless lessons.
For example, Carla, who is the gifted dog whisperer who introduced me to life with a dog, and who often lectures and teaches in universities (not about dogs) often will ask students looking for clues about how to live life, “What’s your ball? What is the thing you naturally run after, that means everything to you? That is what you should focus on in life.”
Our dog, Grizzly, an 85-pound rescue from Texas, has been teaching me since the moment he first arrived in our life, three years ago. For sure I’m a better me when I am around that tender beast even if I do not fully appreciate that fact when walking him on a bitterly cold winter morning. But even then, I can learn from him. For example, this morning I watched him and thought to myself, if only I thought as carefully about the choices I make in life as he does deciding where to poop.
Donald Trump is such a narcissist that there was no room in his heart for any other creature, regardless of species. Hence his attacks as president on nature herself, his putting children in cages, tossing paper towels to hurricane victims, and on and on. I wonder in retrospect if the White House was petless not so much because that president did not care to have a dog but because no self-respecting dog would care to have anything to do with him.
So, it is a grace note to this holiday season, that among the dark stories of our moment, we have one that reminds of yet another crucial difference between this fundamentally good man who is our president and the one who was in office just one short year ago, spending a dogless Christmas plotting an attack on our democracy.