Choosing the White House dog

By Gene Lyons

Since the election, Barack Obama apparently doesn’t care whom he offends. In an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, the president-elect insulted her dog, a Havanese named “Cha Cha.”

“It’s like a little yappy dog?” Obama asked. “It, like, sits in your lap and things? It sounds kind of like...a girly dog.”

Never mind that our normally articulate leader sounds as if he’s, like, seen too many “Beavis and Butthead” episodes; he speaks for men everywhere. A Havanese is one of those shrill, rodent-like creatures a certain kind of woman likes to carry around in her purse and baby-talk.

Cha-Cha, Boo-Boo, Tu-Tu, the names alone make you want to light out for the territory like Huckleberry Finn.

Ignoring wife Michelle’s admonition that he lives in “a house full of girls,” Obama announced, “We’re gonna have a big, rambunctious dog.”

Excellent. In the spirit of Christmas, then, a bit of unsolicited advice. See, like most newspaper columnists, I know a little bit about many things, but not very much about anything. About dogs, however, my expertise is renowned for several blocks around. Which is apparently how I came to consult with Hillary Clinton about choosing a White House dog – the only time anybody named Clinton ever asked my advice about anything.



Back then, our Little Rock home was about six blocks from Hillary’s mother’s. One afternoon in 1997, the first lady showed up at our door with her Secret Service entourage wanting to talk dogs.

She met our ebullient golden retriever, Big Red, the most irrepressible creature God ever made. We had six or seven other dogs at the time, mostly beagles, but it was the retriever who made an impression – along with my neighbor’s Golden Suzy, who wandered over for a sniff and a pat.

I used to say about Big Red that if he wasn’t wet, cold and hungry, he was happy. Then I spent a scary winter afternoon rescuing him from the Arkansas River. He’d plunged in pursuing ducks and then couldn’t handle the current. Even half-drowned with icicles hanging from his fur, however, Red remained in fine fettle, eagerly anticipating dinner.

The problem with goldens, I advised Hillary, otherwise perfect for an energetic, outgoing fellow like her husband, was their tropism for mud. Everywhere Red slept, he left a crime scene outline in dirt on the floor. Somehow, I suspected that wouldn’t make a dog popular with her or the White House staff. A Labrador retriever would have the same indefatigable personality, along with a slick coat that sheds dirt like an otter’s.

Thus Bill Clinton’s lab, “Buddy,” who proceeded to love the rascal through the next couple of years when just about everybody else was fed up with him. On my one White House visit in 2000, I was introduced to Buddy. And a fine, robust fellow he was. The highlight of my trip, actually.

When it comes to big and rambunctious, it’s hard to beat a lab.

For Obama and his house full of girls, however, compromise may be necessary. Whatever the choice, pundits will assess its symbolic meaning. Professional dog trainers and amateur psychoanalysts are already circling. One fool wrote that Obama exhibits a “frat boy-like need to reinforce his heterosexuality ... as if he thinks others might be questioning his masculinity.”

Sigh. To paraphrase what Freud said about cigars, sometimes a dog is just a dog.

One thing President Bush got right is that two dogs are easier than one. It would be tempting to suggest two beagle puppies, cute and energetic enough to win the girliest girl’s heart without tempting Dad to call Terminix.

But this is no time for halfhearted measures. The bold, presidential choice lies elsewhere in the hound class: a brace of basset hounds, one of each gender; large, occasionally rambunctious dogs which are also quite short. The Obama women won’t be toting bassets in their purses. My basset Fred stands 12 inches at the shoulder and weighs 75 pounds. His consort Beverly’s more petite, but when she clambered into his lap for a Yuletide photo op, Santa gave an audible grunt.

The symbolic meaning of bassets is they make you laugh every day. The contrast between their woebegone countenances and roguish personalities is endlessly diverting. Nor will they be biting reporters. Spirited basset sumo wrestling matches are as rough as it gets. No basset has ever participated in a fatal human attack, a distinction only beagles share.

Nor, to my knowledge, has a basset hound ever won an AKC obedience trial. Bred for persistence and cooperativeness in tracking game, bassets are as stubborn and benign as cows. No point in hiring obedience experts. “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan couldn’t keep them off the Oval Office couches. Otherwise, the basset world-view comports perfectly with White House life: There can never be too many guests at the party; big, slurpy kisses for all.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2008, Gene Lyons.

Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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