In these dog days of summer, let's consider the most important decision facing Barack Obama. Long ago, as he set out on this race, he made the one campaign promise he can under no circumstances break: that when it was all over, whatever happened, his daughters could get a dog.
Should this turn out to be the new First Dog, the weight of history will fall on his haunches. Things have changed since the days when George Washington could name his hounds Drunkard, Tipler and Tipsy. Warren Harding's Airedale Laddie Boy had a valet and occupied a hand-carved chair at Cabinet meetings. Ulysses S. Grant told his White House staff that if anything happened to his son's beloved Newfoundland, they'd all be fired. Teddy Roosevelt had, along with a badger, a toad, some snakes and a pig, a bull terrier named Pete who once ripped the pants of a French ambassador. Cousin Franklin's dog Fala had a press secretary, starred in a movie and was named an honorary private in the Army. George H.W. Bush's springer spaniel Millie wrote a book, which sold more copies than the President's autobiography. And then, of course, there was Checkers. Harry Truman supposedly once said, You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.
It's hard enough to pick the right dog even if you're not the First Family. So the American Kennel Club (AKC), hoping to help usher the 23rd purebred dog into the White House, is conducting a survey (you can vote at presidentialpup.com before Aug. 19). Since the Obama girls have allergies, the AKC has limited the ballot to five hypoallergenic breeds. It suggests that the bichon frise's history as companion to French noblemen would qualify the breed for the White House, but I'm not sure that's the image Obama's looking for. It commends the miniature schnauzer as an excellent watchdog, for a little added security, or the sweet-tempered soft-coated wheaten terrier as a goodwill ambassador, though it "must be handled firmly ... and with consistency," which may be a deal breaker for the candidate of Change.
But the AKC's preference for purebreds misses the great opportunity of the Obamapup. Surely a postpartisan, bridge-building reformer would lean toward some spectacularly unidentifiable mutt, a shelter dog or at least one of the American Canine Hybrid Club's more than 500 registered hybrids, the designer dogs meant to give you the best of both breeds: a Labradoodle, a Peke-a-Poo, a Bagle (half basset, half beagle). A candidate seeking a bully pulpit might like the Bullypit (a bulldog-pit-bull mix). Or he could go for a Sharmatian--part Chinese Shar-Pei, part Dalmatian--and get the whole East-and-West, black-and-white thing in a single pooch.
There's something to be said for moving up the decision, given the competition from the McCainines. An AP--Yahoo News poll in June found that pet owners favor John McCain over Obama, 42% to 37%, with an even bigger edge among dog owners. One respondent explained that it "tells you that they're responsible at least for something, for the care of something." Or, in the McCains' case, many somethings: their menagerie includes turtles Cuff and Link, many fish, some parakeets, Oreo the cat and four dogs, among them terriers Lucy and Desi. Obama could take comfort in his 14-point lead among non--pet owners, except that they form a distinct minority of U.S. households.
However this goes, the Obamas are looking at a major life change, as the McCains, among others, could tell them. A dog was never an option in the Manhattan apartment where I grew up, and my daughters knew that training the dog they so desperately wanted was nothing compared with training me to accept one. The day Twist arrived, the rhythms of our house changed. Morning came sooner, they were all so eager to play; night broke into pieces, for dispensing puppy comfort. As the days went by and we forgave her accidents and idiosyncrasies, we saw her willingly forgive ours: she offered a kind of unreserved, undeserved and unconditional love that made us all more gentle and generous and tuned to the fun in the simplest things. Snow is for rolling in. Fireflies are for chasing. People smell good. When things go wrong, nap. These reminders and revelations were a gift to our family--and could be only more valuable if your house should turn out to be at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
1. Franklin D. Roosevelt with Fala 2. Lyndon Johnson with his beagle 3. Warren Harding with Laddie Boy 4. Richard Nixon with Checkers