Surely you've heard the story about Mitt Romney's dog. If you haven't, just wait. The more desperate the GOP primary campaign gets, the more likely you are to hear it again.
In 1983, a 36-year-old Romney and his wife and five young boys piled into the family station wagon for a 12-hour drive from Boston to Lake Huron in Canada. As was the custom, Seamus, their Irish setter, rode in a crate strapped to the top of the car.
Somewhere along the way, the dog began to experience, shall we say, digestive trouble that made its presence known via, uh, streaks on the back windshield. Ever the efficiency enforcer, Romney pulled into a gas station, hosed the dog off, put him back on the roof and continued the trip.
The anecdote was first relayed in a Boston Globe article in 2007, the last time Romney ran for the Republican presidential nomination. Since then, it's endured a long telephone game of exaggerations and misconstruels. (Gail Collins likes to write about it in her New York Times column.)
Many versions of the story imply that the dog was not in a crate but rather tethered to the luggage rack in the manner of a silent movie damsel tied to railroad tracks. Others seem to conflate it with the scene in "National Lampoon's Vacation" (released, incidentally, in 1983) in which Chevy Chase inadvertently (and supposedly hilariously) drags a dog to its death after forgetting to untie it from the car after a picnic.
I've found myself thinking about the Romney dog story a lot these days. Maybe it's because during the holidays my thoughts tend to turn to the plight of recklessly purchased Christmas puppies and that poor little dog owned by the Grinch — not to mention all the pets made to wear humiliating reindeer antlers for family photos (for instance my own dog several years in a row). Or maybe it's because lately I've been poking a bit of fun at Romney's inveterate Ken doll qualities and wondering if Mattel ever made some kind of limited edition Ken station wagon that came with straps and carabiners for a separately sold Ken dog. In any case, I decided to look into the matter further.
It turns out the truth is considerably less cartoonish than the myth. Not only was Seamus in a crate, the crate was protected by a windscreen that Romney had constructed. According to PolitiFact, Romney defended his actions in the days after the story was published, telling reporters that "[Seamus] scrambled up there every time we went on trips. He got [up] all by himself and enjoyed it."
Look, I'm not suggesting that Seamus' rides on the roof were ecstatic journeys akin to Snoopy piloting his doghouse in the spirit of the Red Baron. But let's try to think objectively. Assuming his car sickness was an isolated event, would Seamus really have been better off crammed into a station wagon with seven humans than up top in a secure, enclosed crate with a windscreen? Moreover, if Seamus had been, say, a Texas dog in the back of a pickup, as opposed to a Massachusetts dog on top of a car, would anyone have batted an eye?
I called John Bradshaw, associate professor at the Bristol University Veterinary School in the United Kingdom and the author of "Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet." He told me the problem wasn't so much the roof but the use of any kind of container, which can make a dog upset if it feels its owners have disappeared.
"If it was in a proper crate with a windshield on it, I can't see any difference between riding on the roof versus in the back of a pickup truck," says Bradshaw.
Not that Bradshaw advocates dogs riding in the beds of pickups, or even sticking their heads out of car windows, which can cause eye and ear injuries. He merely recognizes that they seem to have a thing for open-air travel.
As for Seamus (whom I'm willing to believe was introduced to the rooftop crate in short increments, if only so his pragmatic master could test out the windscreen), Bradshaw is circumspect.
"It was a different time," he says. "It sounds horrific now, but back then we didn't know so much about the mental lives of dogs."
So if you're a single-issue voter and that issue is the candidate's policy on pet transport, maybe it's time to give Romney a break on this one. Sure, his judgment may have been lacking when it came to canine transportation, but if this is the extent of his personal baggage, he's traveling light.
It's even been said that he shared his bed with Seamus when his wife was away. Now there's some dirty laundry for you.