Public fascination with the saga of Seamus Romney reflects a massive transformation in how Americans view their pets.
When the doggie wars came to American politics last week, it was tempting to see the fracas as yet another sign of the decline of the republic. Having just finished a cycle of out-of-context fulminations about alleged disrespect for mothers, we were now on to a faux debate about just who was the more grotesque abuser of animals. In one corner, the man who 29 years ago transported his dog to a vacation home via a car-roof crate; in the other, the six-year-old future president who was fed dog meat when his family lived in Indonesia. Peter Singer, don't call your office.
The canine kabuki may not have done much to enlighten Americans about their electoral choices this fall, but it was good for pageviews. As on a slow traffic day, injecting a cute animal into the content mix during a lull in campaigning can never hurt. So after enduring months of Gail Collins columns and New Yorker covers about Seamus the dog's famous ride to Canada, Mitt Romney supporters were finally able to invoke their own puppy love after the Daily Caller got the ball rolling. "I'm sorry Mr. President, he's not on the menu," John McCain tweeted above a snapshot of his son's bulldog, Apollo. Har, har, har.
In fact, potentates -- and would-be potentates -- have used pets for symbolic effect since well before Barack Obama made good on his campaign trail promise to get his daughters a puppy. In China, the dog-loving Han emperor Ling elevated his canines to senior ranks in his court; the animals slept on ornate carpets and had their own personal bodyguards. Seventeenth-century Japanese shogun Tsunayoshi instituted new taxes to pay for his pack of dogs, making it illegal to speak of the pooches in impolite terms. Mary, Queen of Scots, clad her lapdog entourage in blue velvet suits and famously snuck one into her own execution under her skirt.
In a middle-class democracy, pet politics are different. For feudal chieftains, conspicuously providing opulent succor to an economically useless corgi was a way to further demonstrate their exalted position and awe a populace that struggled to feed actual children. But in America, the most famous White House dog, Franklin Roosevelt's Fala, served the exact opposite purpose: Sure, FDR was an Ivy League swell, but when he talked up his beloved scottie, the aristocrat from Hyde Park sounded like an American everyman.
Presidents ever since have deployed dogs much as FDR did: As a way to make the most powerful person on Earth look like a normal guy. That was certainly how it worked for Obama. His foes smeared him as a Kenyan Muslim socialist elitist, but when he talked about how "we all have to take turns walking" Bo, he sounded like a standard middle-class dad worrying that his kids' new playing might poop on the rug. The positive coverage that ensues whenever the president and Bo are pictured together demonstrates that the line "if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog" may be even truer than Harry Truman knew.
Still, even as presidential pets remained constant, the world of American pet ownership had changed markedly. In the 15 years before Obama's election, spending on pet products nearly tripled, to $43.4 billion dollars. Where many pets once lived in the back yard, nearly all dogs now live indoors; in one survey, 47 percent of pet owners said they shared a bed with a four-legged companion. The American pet economy features veterinary antidepressants, $100-a-night pet hotels, and a growing case law around wrongful-pet-death litigation. The annual pet industry trade show features innovations like talking food bowls for latch-key pets and dog diapers for incontinent ones. There are also plenty of car seatbelts available for dogs.