At the now defunct Newseum in Washington, D.C., one of the most popular exhibits used to be a photographic display on presidents and their dogs. It was impossible to get in edgeways through the crowds milling around it, and almost everyone had smiles on their faces as they read about the companion animals who made our presidents seem just that much more human.
Presidential dogs and cats, and especially those in the White House, have always captivated Americans even as they have occupied a very special place in the hearts of their famous parents. And there have been legions of them who have, through the centuries, romped around the Oval Office and posed for the press.
Stories about the bond between Franklin Roosevelt and his dog, Fala, the Scottish terrier he so loved and who was a media sensation in her day, are legend. Fala was a constant companion to the president and his wife, Eleanor, and now lies buried next to Roosevelt in New York. A statue of Fala stands next to one of her famous father’s at the Roosevelt Memorial in D.C.
Richard Nixon’s cocker spaniel, Checkers, became quite a celebrity after the then Senator mentioned the dog in a now-famous televised speech on Sept. 23, 1952.
John F. Kennedy Jr.’s cat, Tom Kitten, was the first presidential cat to receive an obituary notice from the press. Teddy Roosevelt’s cat Slippers was known for regularly falling asleep in the halls and guests to a state dinner reportedly needed to step over him to get to the dining room.
George W. Bush’s Barney and Ms. Beazley, both Scottish terriers, enthralled Americans through the Barney Cam videos made by the White House communications team over the holidays between 2002 and 2008, including this humorous one showing the first family snuggling with their dogs and the president talking to a napping Barney as they prepare for their last White House Christmas. The Bush family also had a rescued cat, India.
And who can forget this heartbreaking image of Sully, President George Bush’s beloved dog, keeping vigil by his flag-draped casket?
Among the famous dogs and cats who have occupied the White House and presidential hearts, there have been a few rescues.
The most famous of these, perhaps, is President Lyndon B. Johnson’s dog, Yuki. Yuki was found wandering about a gas station in Texas on Thanksgiving Day 1966. Johnson’s daughter, Luci, gifted the dog to her father for his birthday, and the two became inseparable. In this photo, you can see the president singing with Yuki in the Oval Office. President Johnson also had two other dogs, Edgar and Freckles, at the time.
President Abraham Lincoln, who famously loved cats, is reported to have adopted two stray cats and, by some accounts, a stray dog—a mixed breed dog he named Fido. Fido went on to become the first presidential dog to be photographed.
President Bill Clinton’s cat, Socks, was rescued as a kitten by his daughter, Chelsea.
In 2008, after being elected president, Barack Obama was lobbied by animal protection groups and activists to adopt a dog. After a long, much publicized search that included considerations about one of his daughters being allergic to pet hair, the president and his family acquired Bo, a Portuguese water dog, from Sen. Edward Kennedy. Kennedy and his wife had bought the dog a month earlier and gave him up because he was not getting along with another family dog.
George W. Bush made headlines with his answer about what he’d do in an emergency that required evacuation, suggesting that the rescue of his dog Barney would be his first priority. After leaving the White House, Bush and his wife, Laura, acquired a puppy, Freddy, from the SPCA of Texas in 2016.
In a promising sign that awareness about pet homelessness is on the rise among our leaders, as well as the American public, we saw a good number of rescue dogs on this year’s presidential campaign trail. Some candidates pitched for rescuing dogs from shelters, like Pete Buttigieg who took to social media while on the trail to talk about his two dogs, Buddy and Truman. Both, he wrote, were representative of “the many loving dogs in shelters who need homes.”
Democratic presidential candidates John Hickenlooper and Tim Ryan also talked about their rescue dogs while on the campaign trail, and Michael Bennet acquired his dog, Pepper, from a Colorado prison program that saves dogs from shelters and trains them.
The love of a companion animal transcends all political and other barriers, and it is invaluable, as our presidents and these other leaders—and anyone who’s shared their home and heart with a companion animal—knows. Animals relieve stress and give us so many moments to smile about, and in these times of doubt, divisiveness and uncertainty, the unconditional love they offer is one of the things we can depend upon. The bond is that much more special when you know that you’ve given a home to a rescued animal.