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Richard M. Nixon with his cocker spaniel, Checkers, in 1952. (Photo: Richard Nixon Foundation).

The O’Toole Chronicles: Politics of a Dog

By Kevin O'Toole, June 06 2022 12:01 am

We all know that our canine friends are special.  Mine certainly is, so much so that Ollie starred in my most effective political ad, but more on that later.

Fun fact – each September 23rd we celebrate National Dogs in Politics Day.  Another fun fact – there have actually been more canine residents in the White House than Presidents! No joke – more dogs than Presidents have resided in the White House. Senator Nixon (not yet President) actually made National Dogs in Politics Day possible.

In short, after being selected to serve as the Vice President for the Eisenhower ticket in 1952, campaign charges of corruption fell Nixon’s way. Nixon held a much-watched press conference and he denied taking part in any illegal activities. He did admit that his family received a gift of a dog – a cocker spaniel – that his two daughters adored. Nixon said defiantly that no matter what the public reaction was, he refused to give back his dog. The press conference was a smash hit and Eisenhower and Nixon won in November.

Nixon’s Checkers Speech not only ended the controversy, but made him an asset to Eisenhower’s campaign.

There must be something to it when you see virtually every President of the United States at some point during their administration trot out a dog and watch them throw a ball to the family pet as Marine One idles nearby. Talk about powerful subliminal messaging.

Whether it be Commander, the Biden’s German Shepherd, Calvin Coolidge’s white collie, Rob Roy, or Obama’s Portuguese Water dog, Bo, many of our Presidents had dogs as pets as they labored away as our nation’s CEO. Our first President, George Washington, had many dogs, and even bred his own variety of foxhound. In fact, only three sitting Presidents did not have pets.

Why did the Presidents spend time cultivating a public persona that included a pet dog?  And what does any of this have to do with politics?  What political lessons can possibly be learned from our canine companions?

I asked my dear friend, Matt Eventoff, to help understand this dog/politics dynamic.  It would be hard to find anyone closer to their pet than Matt was to his family member, Calibear (who passed a few short months ago). Calibear sat in classrooms, executive offices, board meetings and everywhere in-between.  She even left her “mark” in our law offices (not Matt’s proudest moment.)  Matt’s  answer was quick – you will not find any creature on this planet that loves unconditionally, is as loyal, holds no judgment and shows compassion like our canine friends. Matt went on to say that “our pets don’t care if our day was good or bad, if we succeeded or failed, or what anyone else thought of us that day.”  He added, “our dogs are just happy to have us home, to show us affection and to nurture us through tough moments.”  There is a reason that behind our nation’s heroes, whether in law enforcement, the military, or those caring for our most vulnerable, you find…support animals

And what does this have to do with politics?  Everything.

As Harry Truman was rumored to have hit it on the head with this quote, “if you want a friend in Washington D.C., get a dog.”

Whether it be for the sake of finding something that you can trust or having something that helps you be more relatable, a politician can find refuge with a dog.  Want to escape judgment and pressure for a while, find refuge with Spot.  And learn.

Again, dogs teach unconditional caring, love, affection, humility, and lack of judgment.  As elected officials, it is often easy to succumb to hubris, to the amount of attention that you receive (everyone loves a winner!) and the pressure that all of that brings with it.  Lots of people telling you what you want to hear.  Sitting with an animal is a great reminder that the goal, and job, is to do the best job possible, help the most people possible and care for those you lead, regardless of their title and status.

A full 40% of households in the US have a dog, 25% of all households have a cat. That is an astonishing number of people who can hate your politics, but love your pets.  Rule 101 in politics is that we try to relate and connect at any level with our judging public. Whether it be rooting for a local sports team, parading your adorable kids to a political event, or talking about a working class background, we try to hit as many political neurons as possible. A public viewing of ownership of that special animal sets the stage for a candidate to be seen as the everyman or everywoman.

I have had four dogs in my time. Three during my childhood (Fido, Puka and Mumbles) and I was conned by my kids to get my current dog, Ollie. Ollie is a miniature labradoodle and oddly (to me, not to Matt) has helped define our household.

As young parents, we believed that a dog would give the young children a sense of responsibility and would help them grow emotionally. I was reluctant to get another dog but was persuaded when my kids actually signed a contract swearing to take full and total responsibility for caring for the dog. That contract lasted all of 12 hours. Twelve years later and Ollie is doing fine and I, unlike our Presidents, would say that I have never used him for politics. Well, there was that one campaign.

Full disclosure: In 2013, I thought it would be cool to have my dog narrate a campaign commercial. I wanted something different, offbeat, and outside the box. My advisors were dead set against me using this tactic, but I forged ahead nonetheless.

I invite you to watch my commercial with Ollie, which I think came out pretty well, but you be the judge.

Last tip – if you are a pet owner and running for office, obtain a copy of pet licenses in your town or district and tee up a mailer or television commercial with your family dog or cat – just saying.

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