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First Pets Often Go From the White House to the Dog House

January 14, 2002|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON -- When Buddy Clinton lost his job as image booster for a scandalized master, his status plunged from that of presidential best friend to political has-been. In four short years he careened from national canine icon to another New York traffic statistic.

The arc of Buddy's brief but famed existence--he was run over by an SUV last week outside his home in suburban Chappaqua, N.Y.--is a window into the little-known hardships of a first pet, and a lesson in the social cruelties of Washington.

In this town, nothing is forgotten faster than a top dog whose time is up. The phones stop ringing, the treats run out and nobody wants to play with you anymore. Ask any former congressman.

That is not to say President Clinton did not adore the gangly chocolate Lab who loved him unconditionally when Hillary and the world were angry about Monica. But in the stark reality of the marbled city, presidential pets are ultimately presidential props, faithful followers who make even the most hard-boiled politician seem likable. (Which might explain why the White House has been occupied by only 190 children and more than 400 pets.)

When Herbert Hoover was coming off as aloof in his run for president, an advisor told him to get a dog. Richard Nixon saved his political skin when he invoked the name of Checkers while denying he held a secret slush fund. And when Republicans berated FDR for dispatching a destroyer to retrieve his beloved Fala from the Aleutian Islands, the president charged them with picking on his "little dog" and, perhaps not coincidentally, won an unprecedented fourth term.

But for the pets, history tells us, it isn't all pampered glory.

For starters, a presidential dog requires a bladder of steel. You can't just open the back door in the middle of the night at the White House, and it's a long way from the residence to the ground floor. (Such was the bane of President Ford's golden retriever, Liberty, who evidently had highly efficient kidneys.) And when you finally get outside, the caretakers are forever patching the lush lawn, so forget about visiting your favorite grassy spot.

Few families are as famously fond of their pets as the Bushes, who dote on their Scottish terrier Barney and also seem to be working on a multi-generational dog dynasty. (The late Millie, owned by Bush I, is mother to the current Spot, owned by Bush II.)

Presidential historian William Seale says the Bushes "are really dog people."

Which begs the question: Are they cat people?

It seemed so when candidate George W. Bush deserted New Hampshire for Texas, saying he missed his cat, Ernie. After the election, though, the six-toed furniture-scratcher was fobbed off on a family friend in Brentwood and promptly disappeared for three weeks. He was found wandering with burrs in his fur along Avenue of the Stars in Century City.

Alas, felines did not fare well in the last White House transition. Socks, treasured paparazzi fodder in Clinton's first term, was unloaded on presidential secretary Betty Currie when the former president moved to New York. Said cause: a blood feud with Buddy.

While this failed to astonish Columbia University historian Henry Graff--"In the old days guys would give away a beloved fraternity ring. Why can't you give away a cat?"--it flabbergasted members of the American Cat Fanciers Assn. in Branson, Mo.

"No, never!" said associate director Cindy Skeen when asked if she would similarly part with her Bootsie.

For all the generations of presidents who have recognized the image value of a four-footer, they've also proved more than willing to show the door to one that's outlived its usefulness.

Warren G. Harding's Airedale terrier, Laddie Boy, had his own chair to sit on at Cabinet meetings and is famously pictured peering through a wreath at his master's casket. After the funeral, though, Florence Harding gave the dog away.

President Eisenhower's Weimaraner, Heidi, left unsightly paw marks on the deep-piled executive rugs, upsetting Mamie, who would send her in a chauffeured limousine to the family farm in Gettysburg. Discovering his faithful companion missing, Ike would order her brought back, causing Heidi to spend an inordinate amount of time on Highway 15. When the dog took to relieving herself on the Blue Room rug, she was dispatched to the farm permanently.

While it lasts, though, the time spent in the warmth of presidential glory can be grand, and creatures great and small have called the White House home. Grover Cleveland's wife, Frances, had a menagerie of 30-odd pets, including a monkey. (Small wonder. He was 48; she was 21.)

John Quincy Adams had an alligator and silkworms. Abe Lincoln had the original Fido. Calvin Coolidge kept a pygmy hippo. Teddy Roosevelt owned a veritable zoo, including a bull terrier named Pete that was allegedly expelled from the White House after he tore the French ambassador's pants. Fala the Scottish terrier went everywhere with FDR and is said to have starred in a Hollywood movie.

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