Jest a Moment column: Presidential pets have left their mark

Nick Thomas
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President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy in a limousine with Lucky in 1985.

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an updated version of a previously published column.

After a four-year absence during the previous administration, pets will once again be sharing digs with the First Family with the return of the Bidens to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. So in observance of this year’s upcoming Presidents’ Day on Feb. 15, it seems fitting to remember many of these unelected White House residents who, in some cases, were probably viewed by the American public with even greater affection than their elected masters.

Over the past 232 years, hundreds of animals have barked, purred, squawked, squeaked, neighed, cackled, quacked, hooted, mooed or growled their way through most of the 46 U.S. presidencies. George Washington began the presidential pet parade in 1789 by bringing his parrot, Polly, as well as many dogs and horses to his administration.

Since construction of the White House was not completed during his tenure, the president and his animals lived at Washington’s home - Mount Vernon, his Virginia estate. Washington loved his horses including Nelson, the mount he rode when accepting Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown, the 1781 battle that ended the Revolutionary War. He also owned the first presidential dogs and the names of two - Drunkard and Tipsy - suggest that riding horses wasn’t the first president’s only pleasure.

John Adams took up residence in the newly built White House toward the end of his presidency in 1800. While he shared his new home with a few dogs and horses and built the first White House stables, his stay was brief after being defeated by Thomas Jefferson later in the year.

Jefferson was known for his eccentricities, such as wearing slippers during important meetings. Even more distracting to visitors was Dick the mockingbird, who often perched on the president’s shoulder as he worked at his desk.

Jefferson was replaced by the shy and reserved James Madison, accompanied to the White House by his vivacious wife, Dolley. An outgoing and charming First Lady, she quickly became the focus of Washington social events, appearing lavishly attired and often seen in her trademark feathered turban. But Dolley wasn’t the only White House resident flaunting her plumage during the Madison administration. She had to compete with Polly the parrot for her hubby’s attention.

Proving that early presidents had little imagination for naming feathered pets, Andrew Jackson’s parrot was called Poll. Like his master, Poll developed an earthy vocabulary. After Jackson died, it is said that Poll was placed in the room with Jackson’s body before internment, but the bird let loose such obscenities that it had to be removed. Whether that story is true or not, Andy would have loved it.

The early White House was also home to some sturdier animal guests. The largest were elephants presented to James Buchanan from the King of Siam (now Thailand). But Buchanan promptly disposed of the elephants. He was, after all, a Democrat.

Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge took White House pet-keeping to the extreme. Their menageries included badgers, lizards, snakes, bears, lions, a hyena, zebra, bobcat and pygmy hippo. In the modern era, however, dogs (and some cats) have been popular with most presidents.

Franklin Roosevelt was devoted to his Scottish terrier, Fala, who accompanied the president on his plane, ship, and train travels and lived 12 years (1940-52) - the same length of time Roosevelt served as president (1933-45). The two are immortalized side-by-side in bronze at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. while the statue of wife Eleanor rests in another room.

Lyndon Johnson was a beagle man, and he had several. But his most memorable pet was Yuki, a mutt the president’s daughter found wandering at a Texas gas station on Thanksgiving Day in 1966. With vocal accompaniment by President Johnson, Yuki was famous for “singing” (aka howling) for White House guests and few visitors were spared the Yuki-Johnson duets.

Richard Nixon probably had the most famous political pooch in modern times. As the Republican nominee for vice president in 1952, Nixon addressed the nation on television to deny charges he had used money from a slush fund to pay for private expenses. Nixon did admit his intention to keep one gift - a cocker spaniel named Checkers given to his 6-year-old daughter. Nixon successfully used his child’s pet dog to dig himself out of the financial scandal, although Checkers died before Nixon later moved into the White House as president.

But halfway through his second term, Nixon dug himself a hole so deep with the infamous Watergate scandal, a whole kennel of pound puppies couldn’t help him climb out. He was forced to resign, turning over the White House keys to Vice President Gerald Ford.

Ford assumed both the presidency and vice presidency (when Spiro Agnew resigned) without ever being elected. He loved to play golf and would hit eagles and birdies, as well as occasional human spectators who were beaned by his errant strokes. Other unfortunate incidents of the president tripping in public were broadcast on television, earning him the unjustified reputation as clumsy. Nevertheless, Ford’s pets - a dog and cat - probably gave the president a wide berth.

Ronald Reagan brought to the White House his big-screen charisma, homespun charm and a couple of dogs. One, a King Charles spaniel called Rex, was noted for tugging hard on his leash and occasionally dragging the president from persistent reporters on White House grounds - undoubtedly a useful tactic when questions were raised about the Iran-Contra scandal of the day.

George H.W. Bush’s spaniel, Millie, (with a little editorial assistance from Mrs. Bush) published a book about life in the White House. But even with Millie as his speechwriter, Bush failed to convince the American public that he deserved a second term.

So in 1992, Bill Clinton brought the 12-year Republican presidential era to an end. The youthful president had a chocolate Labrador retriever, Buddy, and Socks the cat. But of the three, it was the president who was a “very bad boy” in the Oval Office. And political opponents have been rubbing his nose in it ever since.

Like Clinton before him, George W. Bush took a liking to the convenience of travel by helicopter. Television broadcasts frequently showed him emerging from Marine One and walking briskly toward the Oval Office, where his family and staff would welcome his return. And occasionally, one panting figure could be seen bounding across the White House lawn to warmly greet his master with a look of unconditional loyalty. No, it wasn’t a breathless Dick Cheney. It was the president’s energetic black Scottish terrier, Barney.

When the Bush era ended and Barney moved out, there was much interest in his four-legged replacement. The Obama family eventually settled on a purebred black-and-white Portuguese water dog named Bo. He was joined in 2013 by Sunny, another dog of the same breed, although there were critics who demanded to inspect their pedigrees.

Pets played no role in the Trump White House. This was a missed opportunity for the former president who should have considered bringing a parrot back into the administration since he surely would have been delighted to line its birdcage with sheets of his “favorite” liberal newspaper.

In 2021, however, animal lovers across the nation were wagging their tails with delight to once again see dogs unleashed on the White House lawns with the addition of President Joe Biden’s two German shepherds, Major and Champ. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC) website, German shepherds are a breed with “high intelligence (and are) loyal, confident, courageous, and steady,” qualities Biden voters probably saw in their candidate.

Of course, Biden opponents may not be quite so generous, observing that Champ in no pup. For a large 12-year-old dog, that puts Champ at 77 in human years (according to an AKC formula) or one year shy of the current president’s age.

Then again, whether you’re attempting to chase a stray squirrel from the Rose Garden or a Pandemic from the nation, experience never hurts.

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 850 magazines and newspapers. See www.getnickt.com.

President Joe Biden and Major.