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.
The most striking thing about the Seamus story is how old it makes Romney seem.
Against this backdrop, the story of Mitt Romney strapping his Seamus to the roof starts to seem a bit more culturally relevant. Never mind what the story -- initially told by a family member to highlight the former governor's practical side -- supposedly says about his unfeeling callousness. To me, the more striking thing about the story is how old it makes Romney seem. As such, the symbolism of the Seamus story serves to reinforce the Don Draper narrative, further casting the Republican as a throwback, a guy out of step with an age where one survey reported some 70 percent of pet owners think of their animals "like a child."
Think about what would happen to someone who tried dog-on-the-roof travel nowadays. My hunch: That station wagon wouldn't get very far before being pulled over, or at least cursed at by fellow drivers who have embraced modern safety standards that were imperfectly applied to people, let alone animals, in 1983. (If all five Romney lads were in the car that day, were all of them wearing seat belts? That could get you ticketed in 2012 -- but wasn't so energetically watchdogged then.) As American society has changed, rules and standards have evolved for vacationing animals and vacationing children alike.
Thus far, Romney has not tried to take up the old-school side of the pet culture war -- the one that would allow him to play populist by casting Bo as the sort of organic-food-eating, professionally-groomed Hyde Park pooch that never rides in a crate like a real American dog. This is probably a wise move, since, these days, even Walmart sells organic dog food. As a country, it's safe to say we're less polarized by the transformations in pet culture than the ones in people culture.
So instead, we have the Obama-eats-dog meme. It's based on a passage from Obama's autobiography that, like the Seamus story, has been out there for years: He recounts his move to Indonesia, where his stepfather introduced him to local foods including dog, snake, and grasshopper. The tale's subtext, of course, is even more familiar than the Romney-as-Draper narrative: That Obama remains a foreign, exotic figure in a country where red and blue alike all agree on at least one thing -- that they don't eat dog meat.
Luckily for Obama, this line of attack is getting a little gray around the muzzle. Four years ago, the notion that the half-Kenyan, Muslim-named, Indonesia-raised candidate had once eaten a dog might have peeled away a few votes. By 2012, though, it's hard to see even the most devoted dog-lover being put off by this particular aspect of the Obama-as-other critique. And in this case, Bo represents a fairly useful prop: He's lived with the chief executive for three years, and no one's eaten him yet.
For more on this topic, see David A. Graham's "A History of Canine Controversies in Presidential Politics," below.