First Pets have played vital roles in White House History
By Nick Thomas
While Presidents’ Day may be a time to reflect on the nation’s leaders, over the past two centuries, hundreds of animals have also been part of the 44 U.S. presidential administrations.
In many cases, these unelected animal residents tracking through 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were probably viewed by the American public with even greater affection than their elected masters.
George Washington began the presidential pet parade in 1789 by bringing his parrot, Polly, as well as many dogs and horses to his administration. Since construction of the White House was not completed during his tenure, the president and his animals lived at Washington’s home – Mount Vernon, his Virginia estate.
Washington’s favorite horse was Nelson, the mount he rode when accepting Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown – the 1781 battle that ended the Revolutionary War. He also owned the first presidential dogs and the names of two – Drunkard and Tipsy – suggest that riding horses wasn’t Washington’s only pleasure.
John Adams took up residence in the newly built White House toward the end of his presidency in 1800. He shared his new home with just a few dogs and horses, and built the first White House stables. But Adams barely had time to settle in when he was defeated by Thomas Jefferson that year.
Jefferson was known for his eccentricities, such as wearing slippers during important meetings. Even more distracting to visitors was Dick the mockingbird, who often perched on Jefferson’s shoulder as he wandered the hallowed halls.
Jefferson was replaced by the shy and reserved James Madison, who was accompanied to the White House by his vivacious wife, Dolley. An outgoing and charming first lady, she quickly became the focus of Washington social events, appearing lavishly attired and often seen in her trademark feathered turban. But Dolley wasn’t the only chatty bird flaunting her plumage during the Madison administration. She had to compete with Polly the parrot for Madison’s attention.
Proving that early presidents had little imagination for naming feathered pets, Andrew Jackson’s parrot was called Poll. Like his master, Poll developed an earthy vocabulary. At times, the bird had to be separated from company to protect delicate ears. After Jackson died, it is said that Poll was placed in the room with Jackson’s body before interment, but the bird let loose such obscenities that it had to be removed. Andy would have loved it.
Two early twentieth century Republican presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge, took White House pet-keeping to the extreme. Their menageries included badgers, lizards, snakes, bears, lions, and a hyena, zebra, bobcat, and pigmy hippo.
Franklin Roosevelt was devoted to his Scottish terrier, Fala – perhaps more so than to his wife, Eleanor, on whom he reportedly cheated. Fala accompanied the president on his plane, ship and train travels, and lived 12 years (1940-52) – the same length of time Roosevelt served as president (1933-45). The two are immortalized side-by-side in bronze at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., in one of four outdoor gallery rooms. Interestingly, the statue of Eleanor rests in another room.
Lyndon Johnson was a beagle man, and he had several. This led his enemies – and he had plenty of them – to claim that there was a mongrel in the White House. Actually, they may have been referring to Yuki, a mutt that the president’s daughter found wandering at a Texas gas station on Thanksgiving Day 1966.
Richard Nixon probably had the most famous political pooch in modern times. As the Republican nominee for vice president in 1952, Nixon addressed the nation on television to deny charges that he had used money from a slush fund to pay for private expenses. In the half-hour speech, Nixon did admit his intention to keep one gift – a cocker spaniel named Checkers that had been given to his 6-year-old daughter. Nixon successfully used his child’s pet dog to dig himself out of the financial scandal.
As president, Nixon had a fish tank and several dogs in the White House. But halfway through his second term, Nixon dug himself a hole so deep, a whole kennel of pound puppies couldn’t help him climb out. He resigned due to the Watergate scandal, turning over the White House keys to Vice President Gerald Ford.
Ronald Reagan brought to the White House his big-screen charisma, homespun charm and a couple of dogs. One, a King Charles spaniel called Rex, was noted for tugging hard on his leash and occasionally dragging the president from questioning reporters on White House grounds – undoubtedly a useful tactic when questions were raised about the Iran-Contra scandal.
George H.W. Bush following Reagan. His spaniel, Millie (with a little grammatical assistance from Mrs. Bush) published a book about life in the White House. This was proof to many that Millie was far smarter than some vice presidents. But even with Millie as his speechwriter, Bush failed to convince the American public that he deserved a second term.
In 1992, Bill Clinton brought the 12-year Republican presidential era to an end. The youthful president had a chocolate Labrador retriever, Buddy, and Socks the cat.
Like Clinton before him, George W. Bush took an instant liking to the convenience of travel by helicopter. Television broadcasts frequently showed him emerging from the First Chopper and walking briskly toward the Oval Office, where his family and staff would welcome his return. And occasionally, one figure could be seen bounding across the White House lawn to warmly greet his master with a look of unconditional loyalty – tongue flapping in the brisk Washington air, and finally coming to rest, panting at the president’s side.
No, this most devoted of Bush followers was not a breathless Dick Cheney. Rather, it was Barney, the president’s energetic black Scottish terrier. Barney had several other playmates in the White House, including India the cat.
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 500 magazines and newspapers.