Could a decades-old story of a politician’s long-dead dog really help determine the direction, even the outcome, of the 2012 presidential election? Whether or not Mitt Romney wins today’s Michigan primary, there’s no doubt that it’s been a damaging couple of months for the presumed Republican frontrunner, and at least part of that damage has been fallout from the curious resurgence of a nearly thirty-year-old story about the Romney’s Irish setter Seamus.
For the four or five of you still blissfully free of the 2012 political spin cycle, here’s the increasingly well-worn story of Seamus in a nutshell: In 1983 Romney took his wife and their five kids in the family station wagon to make a twelve-hour trek from Massachusetts to Canada. Their Irish setter Seamus was placed in a kennel strapped to the top of the car. About halfway through the trip Mitt’s son Trigg saw a mysterious brown fluid streaming down the back of the car. When it dawned on Trigg what the brown stuff was—namely diarrhea from their rooftop dog—he groaned in disgust (“Ew, gross!”). Soon all of Trigg’s siblings, alerted to the sickening run-off flowing down the back of their car, were joining in the horrified chorus. Mitt—displaying “emotion-free crisis management” as Neil Swidey so evocatively put it in his original Boston Globe article—quickly pulled over to a service station, got Seamus down from the roof of the car, hosed Seamus and the car down, then put the dog, still ill, back on top of the car and hit the road for the second half of their trip.
For the majority of us not running for the highest office in the land, this tale would be just a funny little family story, as it no doubt was for the Romneys until it became a political football, or truncheon, a story recalled for its grossness and to poke gentle fun at their eminently practical, no-nonsense dad. But when the story broke nationally in 2007, the political press immediately latched onto it as yet one more bright and shining indicator of Romney’s essential coldness and lack of empathy.
I remember first hearing about it in an editorial written at the time by the New York Times liberal columnist Gail Collins, from which I got the distinct image of Romney practically tying the dog with rope—sans kennel—directly to the roof of the station wagon. Whatever her actual phrasing—my memory isn’t that good—this was definitely the kind of impression her words, chosen for emotional impact over accuracy—conveyed.
Since then, the story was repeatedly, even relentlessly, revisited by Collins, “who has written about Romney’s dog in over 30 of her columns,” a factoid I put in quotes to indicate not just how many times Gail Collins has written about poor Seamus at this point but even how many articles have been written by others mentioning how many times Gail Collins has written about Seamus at this point. Even my brother, a long-time Gail Collins fan because of her passionate thrashings of Republican excess throughout the long, dark liberal’s winter of the Bush administration, has said that her banging the drum about the Romney dog story has gotten a little old.
But possibly her diligence has finally paid off. The story is certainly enjoying a healthy second life. Much has been made lately of an interview between Fox News’ Chris Wallace and Romney during which Wallace took the opportunity to berate Romney for what Wallace clearly felt was an act of animal cruelty. “I have a yellow Lab named Winston,” Wallace says to Romney, “I would no sooner put him in a kennel on the roof of my car than I would one of my children. Question: What were you thinking?” Wallace then added that Massachusetts law prohibits placing a dog on top of a car as Romney did.
Romney’s response to Wallace, that Seamus loved the kennel and literally would jump on top of the car to get into it, is questionable on its own (that dog sure could jump!), and it’s not helped by Romney’s terminal disingenuousness and inability to make anything he says sound as though it were even vaguely approaching the truth. Moreover, Romney compounds his lame explanation’s questionable veracity by insisting that the kennel was “airtight,” unintentionally suggesting that not only was Seamus claustrophobically—and apparently illegally—confined on the roof of a car for a 12-hour drive in a way that distressed the dog to the point of illness, he was actually being suffocated to boot. Obviously this was a misstatement the notoriously thin-skinned Romney spouted in an effort to deflect the question, but it’s indicative of exactly why his handlers keep him out of one-on-one interviews and unstaged events to the greatest extent possible.
In January, during his brief surge against Romney’s seemingly implacable advance toward the Republican nomination, Newt Gingrich tried to capitalize on the Mitt “dog cruelty” meme by starting a corny website called PetsForNewt.com. Not long after, however, a Newt-related “wife cruelty” meme pretty much took the flamethrower to whatever buzz the old Romney dog story might have brought, and Newt’s surge faded quickly away.
About the same time, in early January, Neil Swidey, concerned that his one small asterisk in history would be as the writer who broke the Romney dog story, published a new editorial explaining why he had written the original 2007 piece, clarifying his personal feelings about the Seamus story, and giving his theories on why the story was continuing to have such legs. He explains that while he certainly understood that he had a “golden nugget” on his hands with the scoop, he’d originally intended for the story to serve not as a critique but as an indicator of how purely Romney is driven by logic, not emotion, a virtual Spock of politics.
Since then, the coverage of the Seamus story has blown up. Rachel Maddow did a segment based around the story. Lanny Davis wrote a heated editorial for The Hill explaining very clearly why he, as a dog lover and owner, felt that the Seamus story proved beyond a doubt that Romney is unfit to be president. Politicker added a possible twist to the story in which Seamus ran away once the family reached Ontario, instead of eventually being sent to live with Romney’s sister in California as Romney had always said. NPR’s All Things Considered did a segment called “Why Romney’s Shaggy Dog Story Won’t Die.” And the fact that it was used as the subject of the latest Saturday Night Live opening monologue—with Jason Sudeikis as Romney threatening to put his very barky Irish setter “back on the roof”—served as proof positive that the story has hit popular critical mass.
All one has to do is google the story to see that this handful is just the tip of Romney’s Seamus-related media iceberg. And yes, in this scenario, Romney’s campaign is the Titanic, though that analogy is probably more wishful thinking on my part than anything.
On Valentine’s Day, the members of the group DogsAgainstRomney.com staged a protest outside the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden, where they carried signs with slogans like “Mitt is mean,” “Dogs aren’t luggage,” and “I ride inside.” One protestor told the Huff Post‘s Joran Zakarin, “We want the world to know that if Romney can’t be trusted with a dog, who can he be trusted with?” Psychology Today’s resident dog writer, Stanley Coren, Ph.D., was in New York at the time receiving an award from the Dog Writers Association of America (when do I get my membership?) and witnessed the protests. This inspired him to write about Romney and Seamus and to give a brief history of politicians and their problems with dogs: LBJ pulling his beagle up by the ears (for which he had to apologize to the ASPCA and other animal cruelty groups); Teddy Roosevelt’s bull terrier chasing the French ambassador down the hall before biting his butt and tearing the bottom out of his pants; FDR’s pre-Fala Scottish terrier Meggie biting a White House reporter on the nose.
Coren ends his article by talking about the reverse side of the coin, how presidents have used dogs to burnish their popular images, citing Clinton’s purchase of Buddy during the time the Lewinsky scandal was just starting to break. For President’s Day my wife borrowed a book from the library for my daughter that detailed President Obama’s search for the dog he and Michelle had promised Malia and Sasha after the campaign was over, a search that received enormous media attention and ended when the Obamas were given Bo, a Portugese Water Dog, as a gift from Ted Kennedy and his wife. The book has an addendum in the form of a quick one-page summary of various presidents and their pets, from Washington on. (One example: Washington was known not only as the Father of his Country but was also as the father of the American foxhound, owning over thirty of them, one of which was named “Drunkard.”)
It’s fair to say that a president’s relationship with his dog goes a long way toward humanizing the Commander in Chief for the average American. Truman famously said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” and while this probably does explain a presidential predilection for their canine pets, it’s a collateral bonus that being perceived as a loving pet owner hardly hurts when it comes to the ballot box. Obama’s campaign team has been forthright in their plans to capitalize on Romney’s dog troubles, and on January 30th, David Axelrod tweeted out a picture of Obama and Bo in the presidential limo with the subtle-as-a-jackhammer caption, “How loving owners transport their dogs.”
Whether or not this can be ascribed to the expanding Seamus coverage, Romney’s favorability numbers in February have taken a nosedive. His net favorability in the latest Pew poll is -17 (32 favorable / 49 unfavorable), contrasting with Obama’s net of +12 (54/42). While pundits are more apt to ascribe this collapse to Romney’s relentless barrage of negative ads than to the Seamus story’s revival, it’s hard to imagine that the ghost of Seamus has done anything but help push Romney down this fatal incline. Regardless of whether Romney manages to beat back the latest challenge from Rick Santorum on the way to his supposedly inevitable nomination, it’s difficult to see how he emerges from this latest cycle without at least some permanent political damage heading into the general.
While I don’t think the Seamus story is a reason in itself to vote for or against Romney (popularly known inside my mind as “the bloodless Vulcan overlord with a blank Orphan Annie gaze and a case of foot and mouth disease that puts the misunderestimated W to shame”), I certainly do consider it indicative. Personally, I find it difficult to imagine that people in this economy would choose to vote into the White House a multi-kajillionaire who made his wealth in the very profession whose members brought this country to its knees not four years ago with their excesses, excesses which Romney himself I imagine would be more than happy to allow again through financial deregulation. I’d like to imagine that people would vote against a man who would suggest that those who would care to close the increasingly unsustainable income gap in the country are guilty of “class envy.” But if they want to vote against him simply because of the dog, I’m fine with that too.
Ultimately, of course, this election is going to come down to the economy. If it suddenly reverses course and goes downhill, America will do the sensible (read: insane) thing and hand it right back to the same people who fucked it up in the first place. If the economy continues to improve, then I think it’s safe to say Obama’s dog Bo will have a home in the White House—and a comfortable ride in the presidential limousine—for four more years.