AS A BIT OF COLOR in a recent profile, the Boston Globe revealed that in 1983, current GOP presidential aspirant Mitt Romney hoisted a kennel containing the beloved family dog Seamus atop the roof of the family Chevrolet station wagon for a 12-hour summer drive to the family manse at Lake Huron, Canada.
Seamus did not appreciate the accommodations and was soon expressing his concern with a gastrointestinal discharge, as is an Irish setter's wont. Amid groans of disgust from his five sons, Romney pulled over and washed off the car, thereby demonstrating what the hometown paper described as characteristic "emotion-free crisis management."
Other publications quickly tracked down animal rights activists, who thought the story revealed something else entirely about the former governor of Massachusetts. His state's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals hypothesized that Seamus' traveling penthouse may have been illegal. The more aggressive People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wondered whether Romney was missing what neurologists term a mirror neuron, a condition that prevents basic compassion.
Amid the hullabaloo, the candidate's wife, Ann, posted on the family blog that "Mitt and I love our dogs" and, moreover — Seamus' scatological protest notwithstanding — the dog loved that kennel. "Every time he saw it, he jumped up on the tailgate, walked in and lay down," she wrote. "It was just like the kennel he curled up in at home."
Lest anyone think her husband callous, Mrs. Romney offered that the whole family cried when their Weimaraner Marley died last year. As for Seamus, he "lived to a ripe old age, basking in the affection of a large family."
From George Washington's hounds to the current president's Scottish terrier Barney, Americans seem to like presidents with pets, and presidents have generally embraced the humanizing effect the creatures can bring. Calvin Coolidge once said: "Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House."
But the history of politicians and pets can be a complicated one. Not every president has embraced animals the way that, say, President Clinton loved his chocolate Lab, Buddy — seemingly his only friend during the dark days of impeachment.
Harry Truman may be famously quoted as saying, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." But when a cocker spaniel puppy named Feller arrived as an anonymous gift in December 1947, Truman announced he didn't want to keep the dog, causing a minor controversy and upsetting dog lovers across the country. "Feller the unwanted dog," as he came to be known, ended up on an Ohio farm.
Lyndon Johnson shocked animal lovers when, in the Rose Garden, he lifted his beagles Him and Her by their ears. LBJ assured the crowd that the subsequent sounds were yelps of joy. "It's good for them," he said. "It does them good to let them bark."
Unconvinced, pet lovers yelped as well. A West Virginia dogcatcher told a reporter he'd run the president in were he to lift a dog that way in Charleston.
Hands down, no politician has an odder pet story than onetime presidential aspirant and former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). As a student at Harvard Medical School in the 1970s, Frist would regularly visit local animal shelters, adopt cats, promise to care for them and then conduct scientific experiments on them.
What a treasure trove of opposition research it must have seemed to the 1994 campaign of then-Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) to read Frist's autobiography, in which the cardiothoracic surgeon described his thinking at the time as "not going to let a few sentiments about cute, furry little creatures stand in the way of his career."
But even with this rather distasteful treatment of his adopted cats used against him by his opponent, Frist won that race — overwhelmingly.
"Feller the unwanted dog" is an obscure passage of Truman hagiography; Johnson survived Beagle-gate. And the Romney controversy as of now seems nothing more than an odd media indulgence during these, um, dog days of summer.
Americans love pets, but when it comes to pet abuse, we seem to take a "don't ask, don't tell" approach, respecting the sanctity of family life and extending the boundaries to include the doghouse in the backyard. Who among us can fairly judge what complicated understandings a man may arrive at with his dog?
I've been asked if I think Romney a less-promising candidate for having hoisted Seamus atop the family car. I don't, though I do think the tale says something about him — perhaps that he's a bit old school. It will be up to voters to judge whether Seamus' unpleasant trip to Canada matters more than the fact that other candidates, such as Barack Obama and Rudy Giuliani, don't own any pets at all. Now that's just weird.