Presidential pets: Past and present

April 14, 2009

“Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.” -Barack Obama

And with that introduction during his presidential victory speech last November Barack Obama changed the lives of his family forever by honoring a personal campaign promise to the most important constituents in his life; his daughters, Sasha and Malia. Both girls will now have memories of growing up in official Washington forever linked with the excitement of sharing the White House grounds with their brand new puppy.

They will discover the past rewards of an imaginary friend are hollow next to the joys generated by a loving heart of a real puppy. Sasha and Malia will learn how satisfying it is to be a pet’s hero and they will never tire from watching as their dog twists inside-out with enthusiasm, and smiles widely every time they return home from school.

The family has permanently moved into the White House and now faces the intensity of a nation’s craving to learn about all things Obama. Now that they have their new puppy the entire family will soon agree that a house doesn’t become a real home until it’s shared with the love of a dog. Rooms are much warmer when a pet is present; and feet are more relaxed in the morning after sharing the bottom of the bed at night with fluffy warm fur. Nothing melts stress like the comfort found from a kiss on the top of a dog’s warm head.

President George W. Bush adored his Scottish terrier, ‘Barney,’ and wasn’t afraid to seek that warmth and comfort in public.

‘Barney’ was a wild-child; the president stopped placing him on the ground at Andrews Air Force Base after ‘Barney’ decided he was the family’s fastest sprinter. “The Commander in Chief” looked like the frantic neighbor next-door, yelling, “hey, can you help me catch my dog” when ‘Barney’ decided to race.

Bush and ‘Barney’ shared more than their fashionable zip code. Both showed well on television and they shared the same temperament for the Fourth Estate. ‘Barney’ found his hard to leash and was finally tested before leaving the White House.

‘Barney’ was standing quietly on the sidewalk when Reuters’ television news reporter Jonathan Decker decided to pet him without asking his permission. Dogs are instinctive animals so ‘Barney’ reacts and bites Decker’s finger when he reaches down to pat his head. White House Correspondent April D. Ryan captured the action on her cell phone. The Physician to the President Dr. Richard Tubb immediately bandaged the bleeding finger and gave precautionary antibiotics to the reporter. He also received a tetanus shot. ‘Barney’ showed no adverse reaction to the bite.

The Scottie was pampered and adored for years while starring in the annual White House television holiday specials using pioneering camera direction known famously as “Barney Cam.” As a television personality he thought nothing of biting a fellow on-camera talent. He exercised the dogma that it’s a “dog eat dog world.” Luckily his owner had presidential pardoning powers and ‘Barney’ was able to escape the punishment reserved for animals that bite human flesh in the District of Columbia.

‘Barney’ is now safely home on the range in Texas and he’s enjoying his hobby of nipping at armadillos.

Even ‘Barney’s’ roommate enjoyed the attention; ‘Miss Beazley’ joined ‘Barney’ as the subjects for White House pastry chefs during the holiday season. Both were served to White House party guests as gingerbread cookies.

‘Miss Beazley’, pet of President George W. Bush, introduces herself to the prosthetic legs of Iraq war double-amputee U.S. Army soldier SSgt Christian Bagge, of Eugene, Oregon, after he jogged with Bush along the jogging path on the South Lawn of the White House in 2006.

“There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.” -Bern Williams

Presidents are assigned powerful code names by the U.S. Secret Service agents who protect them: ‘Renegade’ (Obama), ‘Trailblazer’ (Bush 43), ‘Eagle’ (Clinton), ‘Timberwolf’ (Bush 41), ‘Rawhide’ (Reagan), and ‘Deacon’ (Carter).

But the first family’s pets walk around innocently with entertaining names like: ‘Grits,’ ‘Puffins,’ ‘Boston Beans,’ ‘Sailor Boy,’ ‘Clipper,’ ‘Peter Pan,’ ‘Butterfly,’ and ‘White Tips.’ Pets born with “royal” ambitions answered to: ‘King Tut,’ ‘King Timahoe,’ ‘King Cole,’ and ‘Duke.’ Calvin Coolidge had a lion cub named ‘Tax Reduction,’ and William McKinley owned a yellow-headed Mexican parrot he called ‘Washington Post.’ The bird must have been confused every time the president responded verbally against a critical editorial in the city’s morning paper, “The Washington Post.” Even the Nation’s first president, George Washington, showed his sense of humor when naming two of his canine companions, ‘Tipsy’ and ‘Drunkard.’

They may have simple names but they are free to walk, trot, or fly into the Oval Office anytime without an appointment and demand immediate attention from the President of the United States. President Gerald Ford’s Golden Retriever, ‘Liberty,’ made the Oval Office a canine hang out. Ford’s personal photographer, David Hume Kennerly, agreed it’s impossible to fail through the eyes of the “boss” if he captured wonderful pictures of his dog.

This is a 1974 Kennerly photograph released by the Gerald Ford Presidential Library.

Even a turkey makes a president take quick notice. Reuters’ photographer Kevin Lamarque captured this surprising moment during the Thanksgiving holiday presidential pardoning ceremony in the Rose Garden of the White House in 2001.

Washington’s halls of power are loaded with political animals but none with the lofty bragging rights like the ones given unrestricted liberties on the “18 acres” of the White House compound. First family pets have no legal provisions for Secret Service protection therefore they fall under the umbrella of their owner’s security. When a pet is in residence, the Secret Service attack dogs wear “Hannibal Lecter” masks to prevent the K-9 handlers from the lonely task of reporting to the president and begging forgiveness after his guard dog accidentally hunted down and ate the family companion.

“Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House.” -President Calvin Coolidge

If ever a “picture is worth a thousand words” then look at any of the images of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The photograph of a howling president and his adopted dog ‘Yuki’ next to the U.S. Ambassador to Britain is priceless. So is the picture of Johnson showing off the basket of Beagle puppies to a friend’s daughter. Forever a mystery is the curious image of Johnson lifting up his Beagle, ‘Him’ by his ears in front of an audience.

Those pictures prove that all men are, in fact, created equal and even the most powerful are little boys while playing with their pets. These pictures were taken by White House photographers Cecil Stoughton and Yoichi Okamoto and are from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum.

It’s no surprise that dogs rule at the White House; but then so do cats, ponies, roosters, hamsters, pigs and sheep. President John Quincy Adams kept an alligator in the bath tub. A hippo once resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Even the Land of Oz’s “lions and tigers and bears” found a welcome mat waiting for them at the front door thanks to President’s Calvin Coolidge, Martin Van Buren and Thomas Jefferson, respectively.

Visualize a raccoon with unlimited rights inside the Executive Mansion? First lady Grace Coolidge allowed her raccoon ‘Rebecca’ to roam around and reportedly terrorized anything and everything, including White House staff. ‘Rebecca’ eventually took early retirement from the White House and settled down in a zoo. The photograph of Mrs. Coolidge and her raccoon was taken at the annual White House Easter egg roll and it was found in the Library of Congress collection.

Mrs. Coolidge posed for her official White House portrait with the other love of her life, a white Collie, named ‘Rob Roy.’ The almost life-sized portrait by Howard Chandler Christy now hangs prominently in the White House’s China Room.

“Ifyou don’t own a dog, at least one, there is not necessarily anything wrong with you, but there may be something wrong with your life.” -Roger Caras

President George W. Bush’s English springer spaniel, ‘Spot Fetcher,’ grew up around the trappings of political fame and she was quite comfortable living as canine royalty. President Bush once remarked to me at a White House press picnic in Texas that “Spotty’s” birth certificate and her death certificate both listed 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. as her legal address. He beamed proudly after stating that to me.

She spent her later years catching up on her lost dreams on top of the prestigious carpet in the Oval Office.

‘Spot’s mother, ‘Millie,’ resided at the White House as a member of the first family when President George H.W. Bush was the nation’s 41st president.

‘Millie’ had a lot in common with then first lady, Barbara Bush. Both gave birth to future residents of the White House; Barbara’s son, George W., was sworn-in as the 43rd President of the United States just 12 years after her husband, George H.W., took the same oath. ‘Millie’ gave birth to ‘Spot’ during the elder Bush’s presidency.

The two mothers then collaborated and wrote a children’s book entitled, “Millie’s Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush.” It was wildly popular with Republican Party pet owners and autographed copies were sought after and prized; the recent economic downturn has even impacted the intellectuals of the Bush family; and “Millie’s Book” is now found for as low as .01 cents on Amazon.com.

News cameraman Rodney Batten loaned his personal copy to be photographed.

“Children and dogs are as necessary to the welfare of the country as Wall Street and the railroads.” -Harry S. Truman

President John F. Kennedy appeared at times more like the patron saint of animals, St. Francis of Assisi, then as the Chief Executive. The Kennedy dynasty included a New England version of a traveling “dog and pony show:” kids, dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, ponies, and even ‘Zsa Zsa,’ the rabbit. The family owned more or less a dozen pets.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline, a puppy, “Pushinka,’ as a gift in 1961. The dog’s mother, ‘Strelka,’ was a genuine space hero who was launched inside a rocket and then orbited the Earth aboard Sputnik 5 in 1960. ‘Strelka’ is now stuffed and part of a collection seen at the Memorial Museum of Space Exploration in Moscow.

‘Pushinka,’ translates to English as ‘Fluffy,’ and was a subtle reminder to Kennedy the Soviet Union won the first round of the “Space Race.”

Kennedy rarely missed a chance to share moments with his children. One historic treasure captured in 1962 includes the president, his son, John Jr., his daughter, Caroline, and her pony, ‘Macaroni,’ standing outside the Oval Office of the White House. The John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston is proud of that moment captured by Robert Knudsen at the White House.

Their 1962 official White House Christmas Card featured a picture of the first lady, and both Kennedy children, seated inside a sleigh being pulled across the snow on the South Lawn of the White House. Leading the charge was Caroline’s pony, ‘Macaroni.’

Horses have never been strangers to the grounds. A watering trough used for horses in the past still exists on the South Lawn and can be seen next to the circular drive on the East side. Quentin Roosevelt, the young son of President Teddy Roosevelt, reportedly once took his pet horse, ‘Algonquin,’ upstairs to the living-quarters of the White House inside the mansion’s elevator to cheer up his little brother who was sick in bed.

Frances Benjamin Johnston photographed Quentin sitting on his horse on the White House grounds in 1905 and the picture is from the Library of Congress collection.

Quentin’s daring exploits continued as the young man matured and joined the U.S. Army Air Service as a World War I pilot who fought in the deadly skies of Europe. His luck ran out at the age of 21 when he was shot down and killed in 1918 on Bastille Day, ironically in France. Even in his last few months he found comfort in the company of a pet. (Photo: Library of Congress)

“Acquiring a dog may be the only opportunity a human ever has to choose a relative.” -Mordecai Siegal

During the World War I years the South Lawn was home to grazing sheep; that tradition wouldn’t fly today because the presidential helicopter, Marine One, needs the area to land.

This particular black and white photo was taken on a glass negative sometime between 1916-1919 and is part of the Harris & Ewing Collection (Library of Congress).

The nation’s 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison, served one-term in the White House in the early 1890’s. His son, Russell, owned a pet goat called ‘His Whiskers.’ The president’s grandson, Benjamin “Baby” McKee, was photographed sitting in a 19th Century version of the modern All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) on the South Lawn.

This photograph was taken between 1889 and 1893 and found in the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection (Library of Congress).

Jimmy Carter was a modern “green” president and he believed in solar power so much he ordered the installation of collection panels on the roof of the White House to gather energy for the mansion. He also pushed for American voters to lower their thermostats in the winter. He illustrated his commitment by speaking on television from the White House in 1977 wearing his “Sunday’s best” cardigan sweater while seated in front of a burning fireplace. President Carter then promptly ordered all the thermostats inside the White House lowered to 68 degrees.

Carter was also aware of the need for his young daughter, Amy, to share her life with a dependable companion inside the “fishbowl” existence of the White House. Amy found her loyalty in the friendship of a Siamese cat named ‘‘Misty Malarky Ying Yang.’

I’ve never seen that window open since that day I took the picture.

The next cat to occupy the upstairs living quarters was an Arkansas beauty named “Socks the Cat” Clinton. ‘Socks’ fame was quick and she faced an overly aggressive pack of “petarrozzi” photographers prior to moving to Washington. One photographer tried to lure ‘Socks’ closer to the lens with fresh “Pounce” cat treats while he knelt on the sidewalk outside of the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock. Clinton angrily announced later that evening, “…from the highest authority….hands off the cat!” The message was absolutely, positively, delivered the next day.

‘Socks’ retired to the home of Clinton’s personal White House secretary, Bettie Currie, after Clinton left office. Cancer’s nasty claw finally cornered ‘Socks’ and she passed away a few months ago.

The first family’s pet’s activities are now included on the official White House web site. Each animal has its own White House publicity photo. ‘Socks’ portrait was shot by Barbara Kinney/The White House.

“If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” -Harry S. Truman

President Bill Clinton discovered man’s best friend was man’s only friend during the period surrounding the discovery he lied under oath to federal investigators about an affair with a 22 year-old White House Intern. The Clinton Administration went deep into ‘bunker mentality” after President Clinton stood before the nation on live television, pointed his finger up, and declared, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman. Miss Lewinsky.” Reuters photographers captured both pictures.

It turns out Monica Lewinsky had the goods to prove she was honestly bragging to a co-worker about her relationship with Clinton. The intern had saved the dress she was wearing when the two were alone. Investigators eventually took it into evidence and DNA tested the presidential keepsake found on the garment to determine he had, in fact, lied earlier. A humiliating impeachment proceeding followed and the full House of Representatives’ vote found Clinton guilty.

The gentle brown eyesand forgiving heart of his chocolate Labrador retriever ‘Buddy’ thawed the frost and gave the president a forgiving friend.

Bill’s ‘Buddy’ was killed tragically one night by an automobile on the road next to his Chappaqua, New York, home in 2002 while Mr. and Mrs. Clinton were away.

President Truman’s quote is celebrated for it’s political accuracy but he owned a dog only briefly while living in the White House; and only by accident. He received an unsolicited Christmas gift in 1947 and discovered a Cocker Spaniel he later introduced to Washington insiders as ‘Feller.’ Truman eventually let the pooch go to the home of his personal physician and ‘Feller’ lived out his life in Ohio.

“They are better than human beings because they know, but do not tell.” – Emily Dickinson

History acknowledges U.S. Senator Richard Nixon for his “best use” of a dog for political gain in 1952. Nixon tried desperate measures to remain on the Republican ticket as Eisenhower’s vice presidential pick after he was blasted with charges that he accepted $18,000 in illegal gifts while serving in the Senate. He admitted that he accepted an American Cocker Spaniel named ‘Checkers’ as a “gift” from a Texas businessman but argued it was ok to do so by spinning a clever tale citing the love affair between the puppy and his two young daughters, Tricia and Julie.

Nixon stood before the nation appearing on black and white television stating, “the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”

The infamous “Checker’s Speech” proved to have the political bite needed for Nixon to remain as Eisenhower’s choice. He not only served as the vice president but was later elected twice to serve as the nation’s Commander in Chief; including as mine in the early 1970’s.

‘Checkers’ died and was buried in 1964; Nixon’s political career died and was buried in 1974. Nixon sat before the nation appearing on color television stating, “I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”

‘Checkers’ was never mentioned on that August 8, 1974 night.

About the same time Nixon was playing out political drama on the small-screen another future American president was playing to audiences on the big-screen. Movie actor Ronald Reagan and ‘Bonzo’ the chimpanzee teamed up in a 1951 comedic Hollywood production entitled, “Bedtime for Bonzo.” ‘Bonzo’ continued with acting and earned another chance to play himself in the 1952 movie, “Bonzo Goes to College.” Reagan changed careers and earned a chance to play the President of the United States for two consecutive terms. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

“I love a dog. He does nothing for political reasons.” -Will Rogers

President Ronald Reagan’s love of animals was genuine. He shared the White House with two different dogs during his eight years as president. A large Bouvier des Flandres, answered to the name ‘Lucky,’ arrived and left Washington before the ink dried on his dog license application. He was a huge dog and exhibited eating traits like a Billie Goat. The White House curator’s office insisted ‘Lucky’ have additional supervision while looking for new chew toys around the historic antiques.

President Reagan gave him his “lucky” break and sent him off to live at the first family’s mountaintop retreat, “Rancho del Cielo,” located in the Santa Ynez Mountains just north of Santa Barbara, California. ‘Lucky’s’ replacement was a mild-mannered King Charles spaniel, ‘Rex,’ who was named after the now retired White House Curator, Rex Scouten, by first lady, Nancy Reagan.

All photographs of Reagan are from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

Reagan enjoyed the company of dogs but he was hypnotized by the magic of horses. He rode whenever vacationing at his ranch in California and he rode on weekends at the Presidential retreat, Camp David, in Maryland. His favorite mount was a powerful white Arabian stallion named, ‘El Alamein,’ who was a gift from Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo in 1981.

He even rode with Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle while visiting Europe in 1982. The Queen is also no stranger to sharing her life with animals. She owns a collection of Welsh Corgis dogs.

“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.” -Franklin D. Roosevelt

There is one White House dog which will live famously forever; President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Scottish terrier ‘Fala’ were as inseparable in life as they are in death. ‘Fala’ is buried next to the president at his presidential library in Hyde Park, New York. He is also immortalized in bronze while seated loyally at the side of the president, in a larger than life statue, at the FDR Memorial along the Tidal Basin in Washington DC. No other White House pet has a monument sculpted in its honor inside the Nation’s Capital.

‘Fala’ ranks as one of the most unique pets to share the Oval Office with a president. The White House chef had standing orders to deliver a bone to the dog every single day. And the dog slept in a special area at the foot of the president’s bed. ‘Fala’ was so well known that during World War II American soldiers reportedly used his name as a “password” to insure German soldiers didn’t infiltrate U.S. battle lines. A simple “What’s the president’s dog’s name?” had only one answer…’Fala.’ Following Roosevelt’s death ‘Fala’ remained with the former first lady, Eleanor, until ‘Fala’ died.

“The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven, not man’s.” -Mark Twain

The next chapter of White House history is now ready to be written and the new member of the Obama family has large paws to fill.

13 comments

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Larry,You tell a great story.Don SmithIAS ’72-74

Posted by Don Smith | Report as abusive

An interesting article, well researched–a job well done!

Posted by Dennis Brack | Report as abusive

Ah Larry,This story was an act of love: your words and the many stories make it beyond superb. If it was a bullfight, you would be awarded both ears and the tail. Hmmm. Guess I oughta erase that. LOL. Tony Edler – Maryland

Posted by Tony Edler | Report as abusive

[...] Y es que si no es así, no lo entiendo. [...]

Very good as usual. You know Larry you’re good enough to be a White House Photographer or something. Harold Siverd

Thank you for the great research and story.I liked so much.A pet is always a tender company.:)

Posted by Maria | Report as abusive

Larry great story keep them coming . Let the rest of the world know what it’s like to spend a good portion of your life at the White House.

Posted by mark Reinstein | Report as abusive

This was a great story, thank you!

Larry,Fantastic, as usual. Keep it coming. jb

Posted by Jason Burnett | Report as abusive

[...] PICS – Presidential Pets: Past and Present [...]

Nice piece Larry!

Posted by Gary Fabiano | Report as abusive

[...] Reuters fez uma seleção de fotos dos presidentes americanos com diversos animais, em seguida a Getty Images fez a mesma [...]

What a fascinating insight into the White House, its leaders and its pets. It really would make an interesting book, and I loved reading about the adventures of the Presidents and their pets, as well as seeing the rare photographs.Thanks for sharing all of this, I loved reading it.

Posted by Helen S | Report as abusive

awesome, larr. not only the itinerant gentleman but an eloquent elegant wordsmith. honored to be your colleague

Posted by carrie | Report as abusive

Dear Mr. Downing:As a long-time fan of your work, going back to our college days, I am pleased to have found more examples. As always, your ability to tell stories with your images is alive and prospering.I wish you well.Arthur G. Insana

Posted by Arthur G. Insana | Report as abusive

That dog bite was epic. Pretty much if you’re strangers with a dog don’t place your hand in front of their mouth.

Posted by SherwinJTB | Report as abusive