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The crucial White House position Trump has neglected to fill

By: Caitlin Gibson The Washington Post
March 24, 2017 Updated: March 25, 2017 at 9:34 pm
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Happy dog smiling.

There's no shortage of reasons to include dogs in your life: They love you unconditionally; they help you stay active and less stressed; and, if you happen to be the president, they might boost your approval ratings.

But after two months in the White House, President Donald Trump seems unpersuaded. The 45th president appears poised to become the first in well more than a century to not have a dog - or any pet, for that matter - in the White House.

There was the fleeting possibility that Patton, a goldendoodle raised by Florida philanthropist Lois Pope, might join the Trump clan. But Pope ultimately decided she couldn't bear to part with the dog. Just as well, Trump told her, according to the New York Post; his frequent jet-setting between Washington, New York and Florida wouldn't accommodate a dog.

There's no sign that Trump's position on dog ownership is likely to change. But political history offers some compelling reasons he should reconsider:

1. Dogs generate good press: This has been true since the presidency of Warren G. Harding in the early 1920s. "Laddie Boy, the Airedale that belonged to Harding, was really the first to become a media sensation," says Edward Lengel, chief historian at the White House Historical Association. "Harding brought the dog into Cabinet meetings. He made a big deal about the dog having his own Cabinet chair and hosting the Easter egg roll."

This reflected true affection, Lengel adds, but also a deliberate PR move: "Harding followed Woodrow Wilson, who was perceived as being very stiff and distant. With Laddie Boy, Harding was trying to cultivate a persona of humanness and warmth and approachability."

And long before Watergate, Richard Nixon's career got a big boost from a little pup. In a televised 1952 address widely referred to as the "Checkers" speech, Nixon - then running for vice president on Dwight Eisenhower's ticket - denied allegations that he had used campaign contributions to cover personal expenses. But he did acknowledge accepting one particular gift:

"It was a little cocker spaniel dog ... black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the 6-year-old, named it Checkers," Nixon said. "And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it."

It was a pivotal moment. With help from a four-legged friend, Nixon had made himself relatable and sympathetic to the American public.

2. Not having a dog - or not being nice to one - raises suspicions: Scott Walker's allergies to dog dander made headlines during his presidential bid, with his spokeswoman having to vow that the Wisconsin governor liked dogs, even if he couldn't bear to be near them. Lyndon B. Johnson mostly doted on his dogs, but he alienated some animal-lovers when he famously hoisted his two beagles by their ears for a photo.

And many might recall Seamus Romney, the late Irish setter who received a tidal wave of media coverage during the 2012 race because of the old story of how he got sick while spending 12 hours in a crate strapped to the roof of the Romney family car on a road trip. It spun into a full-blown public debate over canine safety, complete with a protest group calling itself Dogs Against Romney.

3. Dogs bridge political division: About 44 percent of American households - Democrats, Republicans and everything in between - include a dog. That common ground is powerful, and a first dog gives a president the rare opportunity to be seen, even for a moment, as just another person who loves a dog.

Consider the photo of Barack Obama, clutching a football in midsprint on the White House lawn with Bo the Portuguese water dog following close behind. Or a snapshot of Ronald and Nancy Reagan joyfully greeting their dog, Rex, after returning to the White House on Marine One: "Their faces just light up," Lengel says. "In moments like that, you can really see what the dog means to first families."

4. Dogs lower stress: There's no job more stressful than running the country, and presidents often have turned to their dogs in moments of anxiety or loneliness. Fala, the Scottish terrier beloved by Franklin Roosevelt, helped her master cope with his physical disability, Lengel says. Plus, "FDR was pretty distant from Eleanor," Lengel says, "so Fala was a real companion there."

They comfort others, too. When talk grew tense in Harding's Cabinet meetings, Laddie Boy brought levity: "Just by his presence, he would reduce the stress level and encourage a sense of working together," Lengel says.

5. Dogs are loyal: As the old refrain goes, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Amid the turbulence and controversy of the Vietnam War, Lengel says, Johnson was comforted by his terrier mix, Yuki. In the aftermath of Bill Clinton's impeachment proceedings, when the family traveled to Martha's Vineyard, "Buddy, the dog, came along to keep Bill company," Hillary Clinton wrote in her memoir. "He was the only member of our family who was still willing to."

Given how often Trump has emphasized the value of loyalty - and his fury with those who betray it - a canine companion might not be a terrible idea.

Bonus: A dog can't talk to the press.

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