One of the first things I remember learning about U.S. politics, when I was about seven years old, was that Bill Clinton had a cat named Socks and a dog named Buddy. I am fairly sure they told us about Socks in school, long before we learned about welfare reform and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. I don’t know who it was that started encouraging children to write letters to Socks and Buddy, but in 1998 Hillary Clinton published a whole book of these notes, along with “more than 80 photos of [the] former first pets” plus “a White House ‘pet history,’ from Dolly Madison’s parrot to Teddy Roosevelt’s menagerie.” The Christian Science Monitor called it “utterly adorable.” (It featured questions from children like: “[Dear Socks:] How does it feel to be top cat? Do you like Buddy? Do you have press conferences with other leader cats? Where is your cat box?”)
Presidential pets are micro-celebrities, and there is even a Presidential Pet Museum that has received coverage all over the media. Both of Barack Obama’s family dogs, Bo and Sunny, have their own Wikipedia pages, complete with full biographies and compilations of media coverage. (There’s even a section devoted to “Controversies,” such as the media flap over why Bo wasn’t a rescue dog.) George W. Bush’s Scottish terrier, Barney, “starred in eleven government film productions” including Barney Cam, Barney Reloaded, Barney’s Holiday Extravaganza, My Barney Valentine, Barney Cam VI: Holiday in the National Parks, and Barney Cam VII: A Red, White and Blue Christmas. (Barney was not universally popular. Karl Rove called him a “lump,” Vladimir Putin suggested he made Bush seem unmanly, and both a Reuters journalist and the public relations director for the Boston Celtics were bitten by Barney.) Some White House functionary spent time making full transcripts of Barney’s motion pictures, which can be found in the Bush archives. The “demand for information [about Barney] was so great” that the Bush White House made a dedicated site, Barney.gov.
Prospective presidents often showcase their pets. During the Democratic primary, several candidates auditioned their animals for the role of First Dog. Elizabeth Warren’s golden retriever, Bailey, became a fixture of her campaign. Bailey appeared with her when she announced her exploratory committee, and the campaign put out a statement promising there would be many Bailey appearances to come. The Boston Globe suggested that there was a plan to make Bailey as visible as possible because “voters cannot get enough of dogs,” quoting a Democratic P.R. professional who said a dog is a cheap way to manipulate public opinion because it “humanizes, if you will, a candidate. Because we say that dogs are good judges of character.”
The Warren campaign sold “Bailey for First Dog” handkerchiefs and national publications reported on his antics, such as this Business Insider article on the time he stole a burrito. Warren even had a campaign event featuring a 20-foot-tall inflatable replica of Bailey, with giant pennies hanging around its neck to represent Warren’s “two cent tax” policy. (“Big structural Bailey!” supporters chanted, bizarrely.) The Boston Globe ran a whole story on how Bailey reacted to news of Warren dropping out.
Pete Buttigieg gave his dogs, Truman and Buddy, their own dedicated Twitter account with nearly 100,000 followers, from which the dogs tweeted in the voice of the “I Can Haz Cheezburger” cat. (“DAD SAYZ VOTE I SAYZ MORE TREETS LOL,” or what the New York Times called “approximations of the sort of things Midwestern dogs might say, if they actually said anything.”) Buttigieg put out an entire campaign ad, “Pete and Dogs,” showing him meeting and petting dogs. “This dog understands the true meaning of patriotism,” he said of one that seemed enthusiastic. Another had a Pete 2020 sticker plastered on its fur. Beto O’Rourke, a less gifted propagandist, attempted a photoshoot in which he stood on a dirt road next to a truck with his dog, Artemis. Unfortunately, Artemis looked reluctant to be there, the dog’s “sad eyes” attracting widespread attention on social media. (“Beto’s dog looks like he’s not sure how to tell him he’s voting for Biden,” said one Twitter user.) If you’re wondering where poor mournful Artemis is these days, the answer is “being posed for photos on Twitter dressed as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
Donald Trump does not have a pet, having called the idea of presidential pets “phony” and rejected a goldendoodle offered to him by a Palm Beach philanthropist, even though his son Barron apparently adored it. (“How would I look walking a dog on the White House lawn?” Trump commented.) He has even been accused of “hating dogs” because of his consistent use of “dog” as a pejorative for his enemies, and the New York Times gave space to an op-ed criticizing Trump for not possessing a dog and begging him to show moral leadership by acquiring one. (“Is it so wrong to think that Donald Trump’s character might have been changed — just the smallest bit — if there were a dog beneath his roof? … Mr. President, I want to believe that somewhere deep inside you, there is a good boy, still waiting to be born.”)
Joe Biden, however, seems to have realized the power of dogs to garner free positive media attention. One of his German Shepherds, Major, will have its own “Indoguration” ceremony several days before Biden’s own inauguration. “No ruff days on the campaign trail when I have some Major motivation,” reads a Biden campaign Instagram post. A campaign called Dog Lovers for Joe encouraged voters to “choose their human wisely” and fans even put out a press release in the voice of Biden’s dog. (“Bark bark bark bark bark.”) Biden’s dogs are the subject of their own children’s book. Obama’s Bo had two books of his own, The First Pup: The Real Story of How Bo Got To The White House and First Dog of 1600 Pooch’lvania Avenue: My First Year In Arf, Arf Office!! Clinton’s Socks had a whole Super Nintendo video game made about him, Socks the Cat Rocks the Hill, in which Socks must protect the nuclear codes from falling into foreign hands. (Unfortunately the manufacturer shut down and the game was never released.)
Is all of this completely harmless and innocent? What’s wrong with seeing a leader’s cute dog? Isn’t Biden’s love of dogs a nice thing to cover? It can seem like the height of crabbiness to find anything objectionable or problematic about a lovable pooch like Bailey. And look at this sweet photo of Joe Biden at the Delaware Humane Society collecting Major!
But we know that at least some of this is calculated branding, an attempt to get the public’s emotional feelings about dogs to cloud its rational judgment about politicians’ actions. What, after all, does a “Pete and Dogs” ad tell us? Why does such an ad exist? Its message is as simple as could be: Pete Buttigieg loves dogs. That’s it. Repeated over and over. Pete loves this dog. Pete loves that dog. And at the end: Vote for Pete.
Could anyone possibly be convinced by this? After all, you know who else loved dogs? Yes, Hitler, who took his German Shepherd Blondi into the bunker with him. (The Nazis did not like cats, however, considering them “the Jews among the animals,” and deriding them as “false, treacherous, and antisocial.”) But as much as our thinking-brain might know that a politician’s love of dogs says nothing about whether their policies are good or evil, we do not always think with our thinking-brains. Buttigieg knows that when we see that a likable dog likes him, part of us may think that maybe there is something to like about him. He can’t be all bad, if that dog is so happy to be around him.
Joy McCullough, the author of the new children’s book about Biden’s dogs, says of presidential pets that:
I think they remind us that presidents are people who need family, loved ones and downtime… Caring for animals who rely on us completely shows a capacity for compassion, which I think is really important in a leader, especially one who has as much power as the president of the United States.
In other words, presidential pets do provide persuasive evidence that the president is a good person and will use their power well. (Note that McCullough’s statement could have equally well been used to humanize the Fuhrer.)
I think it’s actually hard to escape having your impressions molded by photos of people having fun with animals. When I see pictures of Lenin with his cats, it is really difficult for me not to feel a little warmly toward him, even though I intensely dislike Lenin and consider him a mass-murdering authoritarian. McCullough is right: pet-lovers just seem like they must be compassionate. The implicit message is that if a president with a beloved pet commits an atrocity in office, they must have done so thoughtfully, because a person who feels tenderness toward weak things would clearly not do anything that causes terrible harm unless they have good reason to.
There is a good reason to believe that how politicians are seen to interact with animals can affect public perceptions. Richard Nixon, while under scrutiny for financial improprieties during the 1952 election, gave a famous speech defending himself, which tugged at America’s heartstrings with its story of his children’s love for a “little dog” named Checkers that they had received as a gift. The speech was manipulative and conniving, but it shifted public opinion and restored Dwight Eisenhower’s confidence in his running mate. Mamie Eisenhower had apparently said afterward that Nixon was “such a warm person” because of his professed love of the dog, and Checkers became the “dog that saved” Nixon’s career, and who may just have “changed the course of history.” (Nixon had been inspired by an FDR speech that went after the press for “even attacking [his] little dog Fala,” which it has been argued might have “ensured Roosevelt’s re-election.”)
Conversely, being cruel to animals can create bad P.R. for politicians. Mitt Romney was publicly attacked both times he ran for president over an incident in 1983 in which he strapped a cage containing his Irish Setter, Seamus, on the roof of the family car and took a 12-hour drive in which the dog got horrible diarrhea, which poured down the side of the car. Romney insisted the dog loved the ride. Lyndon Johnson got flak from the Humane Society and the ASPCA after he lifted a beagle by the ears and defended it by saying: “Ya see, pulling their ears is good for a hound. Everybody who knows dogs knows that little yelp you heard just means the dog is paying attention.”
It’s reasonable to conclude that someone who mistreats animals has a moral blindspot. But subconsciously, we may irrationally conclude that the inverse is true: a person who treats animals well must be a good person. We always need to be on guard against propaganda, which manipulates our emotions and prevents us from perceiving the truth.
It may be hard to perceive anything insidious about headlines like the Washington Post’s “A pet-loving family is on its way to the White House.” Who cares if the New York Times has run headlines about the incoming Biden administration like “Biden to Restore a White House Tradition of Presidential Pets,” “Once again, a cat is set to join the ranks of presidential pets,” or “When the White House Was Full of Claws, Scales, Stripes and Tails.” Was it bad for New York magazine to ask “which candidate is leading the 2020 puppy primary?”
But yes, it is bad. It’s bad for several reasons. First, it is yet another way of making political discussions be about candidates’ personal lives rather than their policies. It ties into what this magazine has written about as the West Wing view of politics, in which the criteria for who would make the best president is which candidate is the best and most appealing person. (In such a contest, whether you have a dog and are nice to the dog might be seen to matter.) As far as I can tell, there have been more New York Times articles about Joe Biden’s pets than there have been about the implications of his Iraq War vote for his foreign policy. Pet-coverage is all the worse because it seems so harmless, when it actually displaces discussions that matter. Politics affects whether millions of people live or die, and so it is indefensible to spend so much time on what is, at best, distracting trivia, and at worse, the same kind of insidious propaganda that dictators use to humanize themselves.
This article was originally called “Dogaganda.” After publication, Current Affairs contributor Samuel Miller McDonald pointed out that the correct title was clearly “Puppaganda” and that an opportunity for a superior pun had been missed. The headline has been updated. Current Affairs regrets the oversight.