“My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos.”
— President George H. W. Bush, in reference to his Democratic opponents Gov. William Jefferson Clinton and Sen. Al Gore

- - -

President George H. W. Bush’s dog was an English Springer Spaniel that George had acquired for his wife Barbara in 1987 after the death of their dog C. Fred Bush, while serving his second term as Reagan’s vice president. After he was elected president in 1988, Millie became a star in her own right; by the time of the 1992 presidential campaign, when Bush leveled the accusation above at the two “bozos” Clinton and Gore, Millie had already “authored” and published a bestselling book, entitled Millie’s Book. Ghostwritten by Barbara Bush, with all proceeds going to the First Lady’s literacy foundation, the book was actually Barbara Bush’s second such effort, having penned a similar dog book from C. Fred’s perspective a few years earlier.

After its publication in September 1990, the book caused a minor stir when it outsold Ronald Reagan’s bestselling memoir An American Life by a comfortable margin. As was pointed out at the time—albeit self-defensively by Reagan’s publisher at Simon & Schuster—it wasn’t exactly a fair comparison, since a lightweight, youth-targeted, largely non-partisan book about life in the White House told from the perspective of the sitting president’s dog was bound to have a broader audience than a former president’s dense, 748-page autobiography, no matter how popular that former president might have been.

I got Millie’s memoir from the local library and tried to combine my writing research with my parental duties by reading it to my daughter. But after fifteen pages of Millie, she said in an exasperated tone, “That dog sure does talk a lot.” After five more pages she insisted on reading another book entirely.

So, yes, it may be true that Millie is not the Jane Austen or the Jennifer Egan of the canine canon. (There are, as it turns out, a surprising lot of books told from a dog’s perspective. Among them, I’ve read The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, a bittersweet story told by the dog owned by an aspiring, yet struggling, racecar driver. And I’ve been curious to read Andrew O’Hagan’s 2010 fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe written from the first-person perspective of Marilyn’s dog Maf.)

If you’re looking to the book, as I sort of hopefully was, to grab an offhand revelation about the younger George W., you’ll be largely disappointed. He makes only brief shadowy appearances, largely as the father of the grandkids Barbara and Jenna—or “grands” as the elder Bushes refer to them—who pay a visit to then-Vice President Bush’s residence at One Observatory Circle, where a distraught five-and-a-half-year-old Barbara sends the Vice President and a coterie of Secret Service personnel out on an hours-long and fruitless search for a missing stuffed dog. (It was found behind a curtain the following day.)

Also, if you’re looking for Millie’s gripping insight into Bush’s handling of the ‘80s S&L crisis, or his huddling with then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney as they strategized Operation Desert Storm—which happened to be in its first preparatory stages right when Millie’s Book was published in the fall of 1990—you’re barking up the wrong tree (and I blame that pun squarely on having read this book). Despite George’s assertions about Millie’s superior knowledge of foreign affairs, the closest Millie actually comes to describing foreign affairs in this book is her partial listing of the great number of queens who have slept in the Queens’ Bedroom, her brief examination of the preparations for a state dinner with the Australian prime minister, and her large gallery of photos near the end of the book taken with a parade of foreign dignitaries, news personalities, and Dan Aykroyd. In a pointed nod toward political kumbaya, the very first picture in this series happens to be one of Michael Dukakis, shaking Millie’s paw and conversing amicably with a smiling President and First Lady Bush.

My enjoyment of the book would probably be greater if I had actually been a fan of the elder Bush as a president—was anyone ever a “fan” of George H. W. Bush?—or had even paid much attention to him whatsoever. But the truth is he may be the only president in my adult lifetime whose administration left me almost completely indifferent.

This indifference is owing mostly to the fact that I was an undergrad at the time, i.e. completely and totally self-absorbed, far more interested in having my formerly conservative Catholic mind blown by any means possible—philosophical, musical, literary, and, yes, chemical—than in paying attention to something as tedious as politics. My undergrad years were also a curious dead zone between my “rah-rah Reagan” upbringing and my bleeding heart liberal adulthood. The only reason I even knew who the vice president was then, was because he (Dan Quayle) had a marked tendency to say memorably inane things like “(It’s) time for the human race to enter the solar system,” or “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.” Ironically, America’s next true master of the mind-numbing misstatement would be none other than George H. W. Bush’s own son. Maybe Quayle brought out Poppy’s paternal side.

So, I wondered, had the first Bush been a great president and I’d just been too lost in the emotional rollercoaster of college to notice? Or was he really just kind of a boring president? Everyone always talks about the legendary presidents, the Washingtons, Lincolns and Kennedys. No one ever really thinks about which presidents of our time will turn out to be the historical Millard Fillmores or Chester Arthurs, the obscure presidents that owing to a combination of personal temperament and historical malaise fill a spot on the presidential timeline while meaning very little or nothing to anyone beyond fairly dedicated historians. In Bush’s case, he would suffer from being largely a transitional president, the leader who was in power when the Berlin Wall actually fell, despite the fact that Reagan will probably always get credit for the event owing to his speech in which he declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

By any standard Bush was a remarkably successful human being. George was invariably president or captain of every class, group or team he ever belonged to; in 1943 at the age of 18, he was the youngest pilot in the Navy at the time he earned his wings; he showed great bravery as a pilot in going on—and surviving—a remarkable total of 58 bombing runs; he turned himself into a millionaire oilman by the age of 40; and then, of course, there was his subsequent political success. But despite this unbelievable overachievement he turned out to be a curiously lackluster president, probably most remembered for waffling on the promise he made when he said, “Read my lips: no new taxes,” a waffle that cost him a lot of his Republican base.

Not even my conservative parents were crazy about Bush, both my folks considering him tepid on social conservative issues and my mom considering Barbara Bush a “battle axe.” Bush struck my parents—accurately—as little more than a political opportunist regarding their most cherished issue, abortion, and it’s true that he never proved himself to be a True Believer when it came to social issues. But they still campaigned for him, since, in their eyes, it was better to have a lukewarm Republican in office than a baby killing, “soft on crime” Democrat.

Bush was painfully aware of his tendency to underwhelm. When he learned to his dismay that Nixon felt he was “weak, soft” while serving as the chairman of the RNC, he wrote to his sons, “It stings, but it doesn’t bleed.” Reagan was reluctant to tap him for vice president because he thought Bush “melted under pressure.” Newsweek ran Bush on a cover with the headline “Fighting the Wimp Factor” the very week he announced his run for president in October of 1987. In Doonesbury, Garry Trudeau depicted him as a literally invisible man, a floating asterisk mouthing voice balloons. (Bush couldn’t stand Trudeau’s depiction of him, and once said that he wanted to “kick the hell out of him.” At the same time, he invited Dana Carvey—who performed a fairly devastating Bush impersonation on SNL—to the White House for a personal performance.)

Barbara actually touches briefly on this sore spot of George’s in Millie’s Book. When Millie was named “Ugliest Dog” in the July 1989 issue of Washingtonian Magazine, Millie “says” that George told her to “shake it off,” then recounted to her the time when he was serving as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and he topped the list in a New York Magazine article entitled “The Ten Most Overrated Men in N.Y.C.” George’s response to the article was to invite the other nine men, plus the “nervous author” of the piece, Dick Schapp, and a host of ambassadors to a reception honoring “The Overrated.”

For the most part, Millie’s Book spends its time detailing the domestic everyday of White House life. We find out which room was turned into Millie’s nursery for the pups (the beauty parlor on the second floor, originally set up by Pat Nixon). We’re introduced to various historical individuals depicted in paintings around the White House. And we get treated to a series of pictures of George Bush rolling around the White House lawn with Millie’s young pups, the President seemingly more saturnine and distracted than playful, but still, there he is, the patrician George Bush, rolling around the White House lawn in a full suit with Millie and a bunch of cute little spaniel pups, one of which would eventually be owned by George W.

Appropriately for a mother, Millie pays much attention to the birth and raising of her pups. When they get their shots, there’s a picture of Barbara with her back turned to the scene, accompanied by the caption “Please note the lady who thought she could help deliver the pups! Makes me wonder what kind of mother she was.” A sentiment that, with all due respect, I honestly wondered myself, a lot, as I lived through eight years of her son’s presidential administration.

After Millie’s Book, Millie found minor television fame, being portrayed on Murphy Brown and Wings, as well as taking cartoon form on The Simpsons. She died in 1997 from pneumonia, before having a chance to witness her son Spotty’s return to the White House in 2001 with George and Laura. And unlike the first Bush’s term, this time I would be paying nothing but full and despairing attention to the latest dog owner in the White House.