Every dog will have its day. In America that applies even to dead dogs. The US presidential election has finally degenerated into a real dog fight.
David A Graham explains this “canine Kabuki” in The Atlantic:
In one corner, the man who 29 years ago transported his dog to a vacation home via a car-roof crate; in the other, the six-year-old future president who was fed dog meat when his family lived in Indonesia.
Note that the dogs in question are both long dead. But this is one shaggy dog story that lives on and on and on. Gail Collins, the New York Times columnist, was the journalist that really latched onto Mitt Romney’s infamous 1983 family vacation with Seamus, the Irish setter, strapped to the roof of the car. The dog developed diarrhea, which came trickling down the windshield and forced the Romneys to make an unscheduled stop at a gas station where Mitt hosed down the station wagon and the dog. This story was actually told by Romney’s son as an example of his dad’s “emotion-free crisis management” style.
It went and bit Romney in the butt instead.
As of 31 March, Collins had mentioned the dog story 57 times. “I’ve made a kind of game of trying to mention Seamus every time I write about Mitt Romney,” she said. She wants everyone to think “sodden Irish setter” every time the never-a-hair-out-of-place Romney walks into the room. “This is a real person. A person who once drove to Canada with the family dog tied to the roof of the car.”
Finally the Romney campaign found its own Obama dog story. In his memoir, the president had mentioned how when he moved to Indonesia as a six-year-old, his stepfather introduced him to local delicacies – raw small green chilli peppers, snakes, grasshoppers, and dog.
Now there are pro-Romney posters that say Romney 2012: I’d rather go for a ride with Mitt than be eaten by Obama.
“One does wonder, however, what the rest of the world must think of us?” muses Kathleen Parker in her column in the Washington Post. “Is this what happens to old democracies? Are we too silly to be taken seriously anymore? A rock star is revered for ranting about guns; Secret Service agents on presidential detail allegedly hire and then try to cheat prostitutes; and presidential candidates run on their canine histories.”
Kathleen Parker can rest easy. It’s not just American presidents. Artist Daisy Rockwell, who goes under the name Lapata, did a whole series of paintings of dictators and their pooches – a sort of fluffy Axis of Evil. “There are very few cats,” she pointed out. She painted Vladimir Putin snuggling up to his poodle Tosya, Musharraf and his two Pekingese and of course George W. Bush with his Scotty, Barney. “It’s the only time I’ve seen sincere emotion in Bush’s face,” she quipped. Barney didn’t add much fuzzy feel-good cuddliness to Bush however because he bit a Reuters reporter. (See Rockwell’s paintings of Mush and the Pekes here and Bush and the Scotty here and Putin and his poodle here.)
But the photo-op with the dog makes perfect sense in the hurly burly of American politics. American presidents tend to be elected on the likeability factor not because of what they want to do the Federal Reserve. George W Bush rated much higher on the “guy I’d like to have beer and pizza with” poll than the wonkish Al Gore. The dog is the ultimate likeability accessory. The German ethical philosopher Immanuel Kant said, “We can judge a man by his treatment of animals.” In America make that “treatment of dogs.” No one is overly bothered by John McCain’s pet ferret. But as the car bumper sticker goes – In Dog we Trust.
Obama’s poll numbers go up every time he is photographed with the family dog Bo. (Admittedly, this is before the dog meat story surfaced. )
Bill Clinton went for a walk with man’s best friend Buddy after he finally admitted to the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Richard Nixon, always a little lacking in the likeability factor, closed a famous speech with a line about how he’d never give up one gift his family had received – a dog named Checkers.
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The dog fits the image Americans want to project of themselves – fun loving, loyal, best buddy, and a bit of a hero. It’s also everything the rest of the world ridicules about Americans – goofy, not especially bright, loud, love to be loved.
In 1989 Californian writer Andrew Lam wrote a cheeky op-ed about Vietnamese like to eat dog. That was in response to a Californian assembly bill that wanted to protect cats and dogs after a story surfaced that a Cambodian family was trying to eat a dog. The legislation implied, wrote Lam, that “the yellow horde is at it again, that the eating habits of South East Asians, specifically the Vietnamese are out of control” while “it remains chic in a French restaurant to eat squab, as it is an accepted ritual for American fraternity boys to swallow goldfish. And rabbit is nice in red wine.” Lam got a flood of vitriolic “Go back to Vietnam” hate mail about it. TT Nhu wrote in the San Jose Mercury News “what has really been unleased, in addition to the legitimate concern of dog lovers, is the thinly veiled xenophobic feelings of many people who feel threatened by new immigrants.”
Romney’s campaign is hoping the same will happen to Obama. It will reinforce that nagging sense of “foreignness” that unnerves so many Americans about their cosmopolitan president. Socialist? Muslim? African? He can deny all of those. But the man did eat dog. That’s practically cannibalism. How more unAmerican can he get?
The dog is America’s sacred cow. That always make me wonder why Americans love to chow down on hot dogs quite so much.
For a full analysis of what this dog fight says about American politics read David A Graham's Atlantic piece here.