Nietzsche declared that “the world was conquered through the understanding of dogs” and, furthermore, that the world exists “through the understanding of them”. But what would he make of the fact that the Free World was conquered in 2016 by a reality television star whose interest in dogs stretches only so far as using canine metaphors to insult his opponents?
A self-confessed “germophobe”, Trump is the first President in the White House not to own a dog, a phenomenon the New York Times snappily calls “The Curious Incident of No Dog in the White House”. When pressed on the subject, POTUS has barked that he’s simply too busy for a dog, which is probably fair – who isn’t? – but also that he considers playing fetch on the White House lawn with a dog “phony”.
The FDOTUS, or First Dog of the United States, has a long and august history. Theodore Roosevelt had Skip, the “Heinz 57” terrier, Hoover had his Belgian Malinois police dog, King Tut, and Franklin Roosevelt had Fala the Scottie dog whose mention in a speech given in 1944 (and written by Orson Welles, no less) is credited with his eventual victory. Presidents need pooches. As tools of political communication, dogs are credited with humanizing the President’s image, connecting him to large swathes of the electorate, and smoothing diplomatic relations.
In times of war, rising unemployment, high inflation, and of course scandal, Presidents must “wag-the-dog” not only metaphorically through means of distraction, but also literally by parading a dog in front of the Rose Garden press corps. Not one day after the Lewinsky scandal broke, the Clintons were seen walking to Air Force One with their chocolate Labrador Buddy trotting along after them, although it’s not clear who exactly had their tail between their legs.
Even Obama, the least scandalous President of recent times, saw the need for a dog but perhaps too late. Having promised his daughters a dog during the 2008 campaign, the move backfired, drawing attention rather to his lack of dog, alienating a significant proportion of the electorate and providing fodder for unflattering comparisons with “old dog” McCain and his pack of hounds.
When he did eventually arrive at the White House, Bo, the Portuguese Water Dog, was quickly put to work, appearing on Christmas cards and invitations to the annual Easter Egg roll. It should come as no surprise that Ted Kennedy, an old hand at political manoeuvre, gave the Obamas Bo in a savvy gesture of dynastic largesse.
Having hung around the Oval Office long enough, Joe Biden is no fool. Owner of two German Shepherds, Champ and Major, he knows that dogs provide a vital axis between a candidate’s private and public lives. He may also know that White Southern Republicans form a large chunk of the canine constituency and that he must bark up their tree if he is to win on November 3rd.
In a video released by the Biden campaign this month, images of Presidents of all stripes canoodling with their dogs on the White House lawns pass in a hazy montage before the final shot of Biden locked in warm embrace with Champ appears with the caption “Choose your human wisely”. “Dog Lovers for Joe” who masterminded the advert say that Trump’s “lack of dog is simply a microcosm of his selfish, insensitive and cynical world view”. Convinced? There are plenty of people who won’t be; you only need to look at footage of Trump’s “dog slamming” El Paso rally where plenty of his White, Southern, dog-owning supporters didn’t give two hoots.
But the very fact that he felt the need to address the paw-shaped hole in his campaign suggests to me that Nietzsche still talks to us: underestimate the power of canines and campaigns at your peril.