From Laddie Boy to Major and Champ, White House dogs have comforted anxious Americans
By PETULA DVORAK | The Washington Post | Published: January 30, 2021
WASHINGTON — It was 1921, and America was emerging from a dark time – a pandemic and a war.
Enter Laddie Boy, a handsome Airedale terrier who was part of President Warren G. Harding's "Return to Normalcy" campaign messaging. A century ago, a romp with Laddie Boy showed an ailing America that the country was recovering from a flu that had killed 675,000 men, women and children and World War I, a brutal conflict that had left 116,000 dead and countless others maimed.
When Laddie Boy arrived at the White House after Harding's inauguration, the president carried that canine riot of brown, wiry curls right into a Cabinet meeting. Laddie Boy became a regular, sitting in a hand-carved chair made especially for him. Totally normal.
And that's how it feels with the installment of First Doggos Major and Champ at the Biden White House over the weekend, our nation's return to some kind of normal.
No word yet on whether German shepherds Major and Champ will be up for Cabinet assignments. But Major did give the White House a "first," breaking the dog barrier by becoming the first shelter rescue dog to shed all over the rugs at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Though that shouldn't diminish the presence of Yuki in President Lyndon B. Johnson's White House after Johnson's daughter, Luci, found the vagabond mutt at a gas station in Texas.
Yuki, after all, gave the nation one of its most endearing portraits of Johnson.
During the Vietnam War's bloody Tet offensive in 1968, Johnson let off some steam by throwing his head back in the Oval Office and howling with Yuki. Though for many animal advocates, that didn't negate the damage done by the great "ear-lift" scandal four years earlier, when Johnson lifted one of his beagles – the one name "Him," not the one named "Her" – by the ears in front of reporters.
Even when presidents are weirdos, dogs help make them seem a little more normal.
When staff members were trying to get then-candidate Herbert Hoover to smile for a portrait to use on his 1928 campaign literature, they couldn't capture Hoover looking even remotely warm or amicable. Then his Belgian Malinois, King Tut, romped onto the scene and greeted Hoover. The photographer was quick enough to capture that tiny spark of humanity on Hoover's face, and bingo, King Tut was famous, Hoover looked normal, election won.
When he made it to the White House, King Tut didn't just lounge around or attend Cabinet meetings, though. He joined the White House police patrol. During the Great Depression, at least someone found work in Hoover's America.
There's only one pet memorialized in sculpture on Washington's Mall: President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Scottish terrier, Fala. He was Roosevelt's constant companion, even in bronze.
The little dog caused a scandal in 1944, when Roosevelt was running for his fourth term and a false rumor surfaced that Fala had been left behind on a trip to the Aleutian Islands and Roosevelt deployed a costly, taxpayer funded search party.
It never happened, but Roosevelt's Fala speech became an instant classic: "You can criticize me, my wife and my family, but you can't criticize my little dog. He's Scotch and all these allegations about spending all this money have just made his little soul furious."
Even then-Sen. Richard M. Nixon got a popularity boost for standing by his dog, Checkers, when he defended himself against allegations that he had a slush fund. He went line by line, listing all his gifts and family expenditures (his Alexandria apartment cost $80 a month) in the speech, including that black-and-white cocker spaniel a fan had sent to his daughters, who fell in love with the dog.
"And I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it," he said. That dedication secured his spot on President Dwight D. Eisenhower's ticket and gave him the vice presidency.
Remember, we said dogs. Presidents brought a menagerie of other pets into the White House, too. But not all of their animal kingdom choices helped their images.
President William Howard Taft had a cow, Andrew Johnson claimed the white mice in his bedroom as pets, and Martin Van Buren was gifted two big cats from the sultan of Oman - reported as lions in an 1840 letter from the nervous envoy holding them in a room in the U.S. consulate, but later identified as tigers by the Van Buren National Historic Site. Congress took action and told Van Buren he couldn't keep them.
See what we're saying? Dogs = normal. Tigers = reality TV. No dogs, no dice.
Still unsure? Let's take it all the way back to George Washington. The father of our nation had fox hounds named Sweetlips, Scentwell and Vulcan; coonhounds named Drunkard, Taster, Tipsy and Tipler; a Greyhound named Cornwallis, and many others. Washington owned 36 dogs total. That's a whole lot of normal.
Even weirder were the presidents with no pets, a lineup that includes Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Chester A. Arthur and, of course, Donald Trump. Case closed.
Welcome back, dogs. We're so glad you've returned.