The lighter moments that took place during the McGreevey Administration were few and far between. On any given day, those of us in the press office would find ourselves answering questions about the likes of Roger Chugh, Amiri Baraka, Golan Cipel and whoever else managed to find his or her way into the 24-hour news cycle.
One of those rare light moments took place in July 2002 when the Governor was scheduled to sign an Executive Order establishing a task force to determine if changes were needed in the state’s animal cruelty laws. The Governor’s outer office was filled with cats and dogs for the ceremony, which was to be followed by a photo op with a group of students who were visiting the U.S. from Ireland.
As was the routine, I popped my head into the Governor’s office about ten minutes before the first event to make sure he had all the materials he needed. Normally, there was a whirlwind of activity underway inside the office – meetings, phone calls, last-minute changes to the press materials. But on this day I found the Governor sitting as his desk rather relaxed while he engaged in small talk with an aide. When I asked if there was anything he needed, he reminded me that when one is doing press events with cats, dogs and children, there is not too much to worry about. It is about as close as of a guarantee you will ever get that press coverage will be positive.
This episode comes to mind because there have been few, if any, light moments in New Jersey this summer. The gubernatorial campaigns already are in high gear, with charges and counter-charges taking place on an almost daily basis. Over 40 individuals, among them elected officials, members of the clergy and other community leaders, have been arrested in a massive corruption bust. A state cabinet member has resigned, and one of those arrested has died under circumstances that still are under investigation.
Indeed, these are serious matters and they should be dealt with with the seriousness they deserve. But sometimes in the high stakes world of government and politics, it becomes too easy to overlook the human factor. There is something magical about a child’s smile, the wag of a dog’s tail, or the purr of a kitten that remind us of the good things in life and help put things into perspective. The images we saw earlier this year of President Obama and the First Family having fun with their new dog underscored that message. It was a break from the cut-throat world of Washington politics – a place which reportedly led Harry Truman to advise: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
There is some uncertainty over whether Truman ever actually uttered those words, but the advice is sound, and dogs and other pets have long been a part of presidential families. Although earlier presidents had had pets, Warren Harding was the first chief executive to bring the First Family’s dog, an Airedale terrier named Laddie Boy, into the national spotlight. And Laddie Boy had a positive impact on the President’s image with the American public. “In public, he was a celebrity dog who enhanced the First Family’s image as a kind and nurturing unit, sharing the spotlight and burdens of performance that came with the White House,” Helena Pycior, wrote in The Making of the “First Dog”: President Warren G. Harding and Laddie Boy.
New Jersey may have played a peripheral role in Harding’s decision to get a dog – a decision that started a long tradition of presidential pets.
According to a 1921 New York Times story, the topic came up while Harding was riding to his inauguration with the outgoing president – Woodrow Wilson, who had been governor of the Garden State. The newspaper reported: “After Mr. Wilson had entered the automobile Mr. Harding tried to start conversation as they rode down Pennsylvania Avenue, but found it very difficult and was somewhat embarrassed by the lapses of silence. Finally he said: ‘You know, Mr. Wilson, I am very fond of pets, and I want to get a White House pet.’” With that, the silence was broken. Wilson asked what type of pet Harding was considering and they continued their conversation on the topic on the ride to the inauguration.
Since Laddie Boy, presidential pets have become a White House staple. Before the Obamas brought their Portuguese Water Dog Bo to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, George W. Bush had a Scottish Terrier named Barney and an English Springer Spaniel named Spotty , and the Clintons made a home for Chelsea’s cat Socks. The list goes on and on – and not by accident. As Lisa Yudin explained in a journal article titled Canine Citizenship and the Intimate Public Sphere, the general populace often has difficulty identifying with the powerful individuals who inhabit the White House, but not so with their pets, which are no different than their own cats and dogs. Using George W. Bush’s family as an example, Yudin wrote: “While it may be difficult for many Americans to easily identify with other members of the First Family – father George, mother Laura, and twin sisters Jenna and Barbara – making a connection with their fun-loving dogs seems to be less of a stretch.”
Here in New Jersey, the pets of governors and other top state officials generally have kept a low profile. The lone exception I recall was Wacky, a golden retriever who belonged to John Russo when he was State Senate President and occasionally accompanied him to work at the State House complex.
But as one might expect in New Jersey, even Wacky could not keep out of controversy. One day while Russo was tied up in a meeting, he asked a Senate aide to walk the dog, leading to a news report in The Record questioning whether such duties were within the aide’s responsibilities as a state employee.
It may very well have been a legitimate question, but in this case, I think man’s best friend deserved a better fate – even here in New Jersey.
(Dedicated to my dog BJ who passed away at the age of 17 on July 23, 2009)
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