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Our Nation’s Top Dog

The life and times of Barney the White House terrier -- and First Dogs past.

By 8.19.04

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Harry Truman said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." It's sound advice. As we've seen time and again, you certainly can't count on your wife or even your children to provide support while you're president. When times get tough in Washington, man's best friend just might be man's only friend -- it's no surprise that every president since Warren Harding has had a dog while in office. Calvin Coolidge went so far as to declare that anyone "who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House."

But presidential dogs are more than companions. Just as regular people often take on the qualities of their pets, a president's relationship with his dog, or indeed the dog's own character, can tell us something about the president himself. It's true of President Bush and his Scottish terrier, Barney, and it's true of presidents past.

Take Lyndon Johnson. The eccentric Texan had several beagles while in office. He created an uproar when he was photographed lifting one by its ears onto its hind legs. The dog didn't mind -- apparently the Johnson beagles enjoyed this treatment -- but the message was sent: Lyndon Johnson: unpredictable and a little bit crazy.

Or Richard Nixon. The Nixon family was given a cocker spaniel, Checkers, by an Eisenhower/Nixon supporter from Texas. Facing broader charges of corruption and special favors when he was added to the Republican ticket in 1952, Nixon went on the air to declare in his gruff warbling baritone that "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 wave of pro-dog public sentiment swept aside any concerns that the candidate was a bit shady and Ike kept him on the ticket.

Checkers died in 1964, before Nixon became president. But the Nixon family acquired three new dogs: Vicky the Poodle; Pasha the Terrier; and King Timahoe, a gorgeous, goofy Irish Setter, added as props to try to make the candidate more palatable to the public.

In 1997, just weeks before the Lewinsky scandal broke, Bill Clinton acquired Buddy, the tellingly-named chocolate lab. Buddy was no doubt the president's best friend in the White House for the remainder of his term. I can't do a better job than Hillary Clinton has already done at identifying the relationship between Buddy and the former president: "He's a hard dog to keep on the porch," she said -- of her husband.

WHAT CAN WE LEARN about George W. Bush from Barney? Well, Barney gets in trouble sometimes for his youthful indiscretions -- just last week, he was in trouble with PETA for playing with a small fish the president caught while filming an episode of Fishing with Roland Martin.

But the similarities run deeper. Barney's page on WhiteHouse.gov reveals that Barney is actually a somewhat complex character, perhaps more complex than any of the current White House residents: he loves sports, and is fascinated by the Olympics; he is a practical joker of sorts; he knows how to be charming and convincing when he senses he's in trouble; he knows how to delegate his responsibilities and take control of a situation; he loves flowers and digging; he is a talented actor and producer; and he loves sweets.

The daily photos and short movies available on Barney's web page imply that Barney seems to have exactly the kind of bumbling misadventures that one might well expect of George W. Bush's dog. We see him taking advantage of his run of the house to inspect construction projects, play around in the pond, and nap on the White House lawn. He scurries down the halls of the mansion and zips through the metal detectors.

The short "BarneyCam" films are hilarious (with the libertarian caveat that this was paid for with taxpayer money) in a way that is probably lost on the films' creators. BarneyCam II: Barney Reloaded, my personal favorite, is funny if for no other reason than the sheer joy that comes from watching Karl Rove tangled up in Christmas lights talking to a dog. Or the amusement of watching Ari Fleischer playing poker with Barney and raising the stakes by two snausages.

Of course the film's creators probably weren't aware of my theory that presidential dogs often share important character traits with their owners, so they didn't realize how funny it would seem to have various high-ranking staffers talk to the terrier as if he were a three year old.

Then again, Barney is credited as the film's producer. Perhaps what we have here is a case of the dog wagging back.

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