Presidential Pets: Bo and Sunny Obama

President Obama promised his daughters they would get a puppy if he won the election in 2008. After his win, there was much speculation both at the White House and in the press about which dog the Obamas would get. Because of daughter Malia’s allergies the family looked for a non-shedding dog. They were torn between a Labradoodle and a Portuguese water dog. The late Senator Ted Kennedy lobbied for the Portuguese water dog who got the president’s vote. In April 2009, Kennedy and his wife gave the president a puppy that would soon become Bo Obama.

The pup was named Bo after the first lady’s father whose nickname was “Diddly.” The American Kennel Club states that the Portuguese water dog “has the ability to swim all day,” but Bo doesn’t particularly enjoy the water. In fact, he can’t swim! Fortunately swimming is not required to be a presidential pet.


Bo Obama playing in the Cabinet Room, April 2009

Bo proved to have many admirable qualities, however. He became the star of various children’s books including one entitled Bo: America’s Commander in Leash. Like other first dogs before him, Bo oversaw meetings and greeted guests in the Oval Office. He helped Michelle Obama when reading to kids and usually managed to steal the show. For example, during a reading of The Night before Christmas at a children’s hospital, Bo jumped into Mrs. Obama’s lap. He even helped with the 2012 presidential campaign by starring in an ad. In the ad, voters were encouraged to “throw a bone to Bo.”

In August 2013, a female Portuguese water dog named Sunny joined Bo at the White House. It was easy enough for guests to tell the two dogs apart. Bo has some white fur on his front paws and chest and black fur everywhere else, while Sony’s coat is completely black. Both dogs became so popular they eventually had schedules like the president. Notable occasions that they attended included the annual Easter Egg Roll. They also cheered up wounded servicemen and hospitalized children.

Though they did many things together, the dogs had their differences. Bo had a job as a helper to the head groundskeeper Dale Haney at the White House. Mrs. Obama said, “he leaves every morning and he goes down with Dale and he’s with all the National Park Service guys. And you’ll see him and he is like walking around with them, and looking at the plants. I think he thinks he has a job because he takes it very seriously.” Although she was usually as good tempered as Bo, Sunny seemed disappointed that she and her family would have to leave the White House in 2017. In January, the dog bit a visitor when she bent down to pet Sunny.

Overall the two dogs represented their master well. President Obama did have to promise to “clean things up a bit” before leaving the White House because the dogs had “been tearing things up occasionally.”

President Abraham Lincoln, The Moral Politician

In honor of Presidents’ Day weekend and African-American History Month, I am revisiting this post from last year on Abraham Lincoln.

Until the 1850s Abraham Lincoln was a frustrated one-term congressman who had decided to focus on his law practice. Lincoln was drawn into politics again during the Kanas Nebraska Act controversy. While he accepted slavery where it existed, he couldn’t abide its expansion into new territories.

He was not in favor of giving blacks full citizenship, however. In 1840 he criticized Martin Van Buren for voting to enfranchise blacks, and he did not support giving blacks the vote in his bid for the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas. He believed that blacks had the right to earn their own living without it being taken away by their masters. Though he lost to Douglas, the debates helped raise Lincoln’s political profile.

Although he did not officially campaign for the nation’s highest office, Lincoln cleverly placed himself in the public eye. Prior to the election he had the debates with rival Stephen Douglas published; the volume became a national bestseller. He also travelled to New York so people in that part of the country could listen to his arguments and see his talent as a public speaker.


Photo of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, 1860

While in New York he had his photograph taken so it could be handed out just in case his name was mentioned at the Republican convention. After he was elected, more than sixty photos were taken of Lincoln, making him the most photographed president up to that time. Though opponents often made fun of his plain, slightly unkempt appearance, Lincoln also poked fun at himself. After being called two-faced, Lincoln said, “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”

Unlike Buchanan, who claimed that he could do nothing if a state wanted to leave the Union, Lincoln refused to bargain with secessionists and sent supplies to the federal fort in South Carolina. He also rejected the idea that the president could do nothing about slavery. While maintaining the Union was his first objective, he said that if freeing the slaves would save the Union he would free them.

Lincoln remained a great politician during the Civil War. He gave out contracts and government offices in exchange for votes. Yet he also knew how to unite people behind a moral cause such as the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.

As the war drew to an end, he offered friendship to the defeated Southerners “with malice toward none, with charity to all.” Americans can only imagine what Lincoln would have accomplished during his second term in office. On April 14, 1865, he was the first president to be assassinated.

More Abraham Lincoln Pets and the First Presidential Turkey Pardon

Despite the fact that they left their dog Fido behind in Springfield, the Lincolns had other pets in the White House. Tad and Willie had two goats named Nanny and Nanko, both of whom had the run of the White House. The goats drove the staff crazy by chewing almost everything in sight and eating the flower bulbs in the garden. In addition, the Lincoln boys would hitch the goats to either chairs or carts and have the goats pull them around. On one occasion, Tad scared White House visitors by driving one goat-pulled chair through the East Room while shouting, “Get out the way!”

Lincoln told Elizabeth Keckley, his wife’s seamstress, “I believe they are the kindest and best goats in the world.” According to Keckley, Lincoln and the boys would play with the goats in the yard “and when he called them they would come bounding to his side.” The White House staff was so frustrated with Nanny, however, that she was taken to the Soldiers Home. Unfortunately, she also chewed up the garden there and was sent back to the White House. Nanny, probably confused by the move, disappeared one day. Lincoln reported the loss to Tad who was on a trip with Mrs. Lincoln. “Poor Nanny goat is lost,” he wrote. By the next spring, Nanny was either found or replaced by another goat. Lincoln sent his wife a telegram saying “Tell Tad the goats and father are very well– especially the goats.”

If goats made for unusual White House pets, Tad managed to find yet another exotic friend. In 1863 the Lincolns were sent a live turkey. It was to be eaten at Christmas dinner. Tad became attached to the turkey and named him Jack. When Tad found out his new friend was going to be cooked for Christmas dinner, he interrupted Lincoln during a cabinet meeting to plead for the bird’s life. Lincoln stopped the meeting and wrote an “order of reprieve” for the turkey. Jack continued to live at the White House.


Lincoln and his Cabinet. William Seward, who gave Lincoln kittens, is seated in front of the desk.

The tradition of presidents pardoning turkeys was thus started by Lincoln even though his turkey was for Christmas dinner. The presidential turkey pardon did not become an annual tradition until years later. John F. Kennedy was the first modern president to let a Thanksgiving turkey go.

Lincoln himself seem to derive the most comfort from the company of cats. When asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary Lincoln might’ve answered cats.  Lincoln received two kittens as a gift from Secretary of State William Seward. He named them Tabby and Dixie. He reportedly spent quite a few hours of his time talking to them. At one point he exclaimed that they “were smarter than my whole cabinet.” During one White House dinner, Lincoln had Tabby seated next to him. This embarrassed Mrs. Lincoln but did not seem to trouble her husband.

Lincoln was also fond of stray cats, but he didn’t bring them home too often because Mary didn’t appreciate it. While visiting Gen. Ulysses S Grant at army headquarters in 1865, Lincoln spotted three stray kittens. He scooped them up and petted them. Before he left he made sure that someone would look after them. Grant aid Horace Porter stated that it was a “curious site at army headquarters upon the eve of a great military crisis” to watch the president “tenderly caressing three stray kittens. It well illustrated the kindness of the man’s disposition, and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature.”

Presidential Pets: Ronald Reagan’s Dogs Lucky and Rex

President Ronald Reagan didn’t immediately bring a dog with him to the White House. During his second term, however, Reagan got a Bouvier des Flanders puppy named Lucky. First Lady Nancy Reagan named the dog in honor of her mother, Edith Luckett (Lucky) Davis. Bouviers are high energy herding dogs that grow to be very large. As Nancy Reagan put it, Lucky grew from a black “ball of fluff” to “be the size of a pony.”


Official Portrait of Lucky the Dog, 1985

The petite First Lady was quickly overwhelmed by Lucky’s size and strength. Hugh Sidney, a correspondent for Time Magazine, said that when the press saw Lucky and the First Lady on the White House lawn, “we would all wait for the lunge because the dog would drag Nancy along for a few feet as they raced to the helicopter.” Mrs. Reagan got no help from the president, who invariably laughed at Lucky’s antics.

To be fair, Lucky also did a good job of “walking” President Reagan when he was trying to have a conversation with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Neither leader seemed to mind, though.

Though Lucky was affectionate, she never adjusted to life in the White House. After a stint in obedience school, the Reagans sent Lucky to their ranch in California where she could roam more freely.

Despite having little luck with Lucky, the Reagans got another dog. This time they selected a smaller breed, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. They named the dog Rex after retired White House usher Rex Scouten. Like Lucky, Rex pulled on his leash, but his small size made him easier to handle.


The Reagans with Dog Rex at Christmas

The name Rex means king, and Rex lived up to his name. A colonial-style dog house with red velvet curtains and pictures of his owners on the walls was designed for him by Theo Hayes, great-great grandson of President Rutherford B. Hayes. After President Reagan’s second term, Rex went with the Reagans to their California ranch.

Lucky and Rex had long lives—ten and thirteen years respectively. They both were buried at the Reagan ranch.

President Lyndon Johnson and his Dogs

When Lyndon Johnson became president, he brought two beagles named Him and Her to the White House. Both Him and Her attended official White House functions. Even though Him once left a puddle on a chair during a party, the president refused to make Him stay elsewhere while his master entertained. Both Him and Her had the run of the Oval Office. Johnson signed the law that created The Great Society–a set of programs that gave more rights to African Americans and poor people–in the presence of his dogs.

Johnson often combined press conferences with dog walks. Most of the time, these walks went well. The walks made good copy for reporters because the public loved seeing the president with his beagles. Johnson tried to get his dogs to do different tricks for the cameras. He stuffed his pockets with candy-coated doggy vitamins to get Him and Her to perform.

One act, however, made the American people and Johnson’s dogs howl. During a press conference, Johnson picked one of the beagles up by its ears. Animal rights groups complained that Johnson was mistreating the dogs. Suddenly Johnson and his dogs were front-page news. Other than that incident, however, Him and Her seemed to enjoy their time as presidential pups.

After Him and Her died, Johnson felt pretty lonely in that big house. Fortunately his daughter found a stray running along the highway. She stopped at a gas station to ask whom he belonged to, but no one knew. She decided to bring the little white dog to the White House.


Lyndon Johnson Family on Christmas Eve 1968. Johnson is holding Yuki


Johnson loved the little mutt and named him Yuki. Johnson said that Yuki was “the friendliest, the smartest, and the most constant in his attentions of all the dogs I’ve known.” The president took Yuki with him everywhere. He and the dog travelled together on Air Force One. Yuki attended cabinet meetings, though he did so under the table. Unlike President Harding’s dog Laddie Boy, Yuki did not sit in his own chair for cabinet meetings.

One of Johnson’s favorite things to do with Yuki was to howl with him. Johnson claimed that Yuki “had a Texas accent.” Yuki and the president howled together in the presence of important visitors like the Chancellor of Germany, who was a bit shocked at the performance!

The president needed the support of his loyal dog as protests against the Vietnam War increased.

Yuki went back to Johnson’s Texas ranch after his master retired from the presidency. He was at Johnson’s side in 1973 when the former president died.

President Theodore Roosevelt and his Dogs

During President McKinley’s time in office, the White House was pretty quiet. He and his wife had no children and only two pets, a parrot and a cat. When Theodore Roosevelt came to the White House, he brought a zoo with him. Snakes, a coyote, and a zebra were among the Roosevelt’s many animals. However, dogs were the family’s most cherished pets.

The Roosevelt dogs ranged in size from Rollo, the enormous St. Bernard, to Manchu, a tiny Pekingese given to the president’s daughter by the Chinese Dowager Empress.

Rollo’s size did not stop him from being a loving friend to the kids. As one newspaper noted, “No doubt visitors to the White House or Sagamore Hill [Roosevelt’s home in Long Island, New York] were often startled to see the Roosevelt children racing across the lawn, pursued by the bounding Rollo, who looked like some huge beast, ready to destroy them. But Rollo was a children’s dog, and he protected the president’s children as efficiently as the Secret Service men.”

Most of Teddy Roosevelt’s dogs were not quite as large as Rollo. Roosevelt’s son Kermit had a Manchester terrier named Jack. Jack would have enjoyed his time at the White House much more if the cat hadn’t tormented him. The cat thought jumping on Jack was great fun.

TR's dog Jack

Jack, the Roosevelt family dog at the White House, 1902. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.


Though he never made friends with the cat, the rest of the family adored Jack. The president described Jack as “absolutely a member of the family.” He thought Jack was a gentleman, even though Jack sometimes chewed on the president’s books.

When Jack died, he was buried behind the White House. Roosevelt’s wife Edith refused to leave Jack there after her husband’s second term as president. She worried that Jack would be “beneath the eyes of presidents who might care nothing for little black dogs.” Jack’s little coffin was brought to the family home in Long Island, New York.

Roosevelt’s son Archie loved a dog named Skip. Skip may have been a rat terrier or a mutt. Teddy Roosevelt found the dog while he was on a bear hunt, and he probably liked Skip best. Roosevelt took pride in Skip’s courage. The dog stood his ground when facing a bear. Similarly, the president stood up to members of Congress.

President Roosevelt often took Skip on his hunting trips. When the dog’s short legs got tired, Roosevelt scooped him up and let Skip ride on his horse. On a typical evening, Skip raced down the halls of the White House with Archie. Once the kids fell asleep, Skip would find the president, who was usually reading. Skip climbed up on his master’s lap and snoozed. Skip died the year before the Roosevelt’s left the White House.

Frequently Forgotten President Benjamin Harrison

In 1888 President Cleveland lost the election to Benjamin Harrison. Harrison ran on a pro-business platform and hailed from Indiana, a state that had a healthy number of electoral votes. The election was so close that without states like Indiana and New York, Harrison could not have won.

Throughout his life Benjamin Harrison wanted to be known as an individual. He did not want his presidential campaign to mention his grandfather, former President William Henry Harrison. Against his wishes his campaign supporters used references to “Tippecanoe” and his grandfather’s allegedly humble origins.

They also pointed out that the grandson had inherited his grandfather’s reputation as a fighter. During the Civil War Harrison fought in as many battles as possible. In 1864 he joined General Sherman’s Atlanta campaign.


Official Presidential Portrait of Benjamin Harrison

Harrison’s actions as president included generous pensions for Civil War veterans and the signing of an anti-trust law. Under Harrison and the next few presidents, the law, meant to prevent the establishment of monopolies, remained mainly symbolic. Harrison did not wish to anger the businessmen who helped elect him.

The American voters were unimpressed by Harrison’s spending of millions of dollars on pensions and his pro-business stance. As a result his opponent (former President Grover Cleveland) was re-elected in 1892.

Harrison’s personality did nothing to endear him to voters either. Nicknamed “The Icebox” for his cold manner, he disliked having to deal with people outside his family. In public he often looked up at the sky so he would not have to greet others, even if he knew them! He was, however, very devoted to his wife, who died of tuberculosis during his re-election campaign. Harrison personally nursed her through her illness and didn’t care at all when he lost the election.

After his wife’s death he went home to Indiana. In his loneliness he married his wife’s niece, a circumstance that shocked his older children. The couple had a daughter, and Harrison doted on her until he died.


Frequently Forgotten U.S. President Chester Arthur

As President Garfield lay dying, his vice-president Chester Arthur tried to avoid being seen in public. Arthur was initially blamed for Garfield’s death. Of course it didn’t help that Garfield’s killer wrote to congratulate him on becoming president!

In addition, Arthur and Garfield had a strained relationship. As vice-president he opposed Garfield’s defiance of Roscoe Conkling. Conkling had helped Arthur get a post as New York’s Customs Collector during the Grant administration. While Arthur was never charged with corruption, he cheerfully allowed it. When he was fired from his post by the reform minded President Hayes, Arthur became the president of New York’s Republican committee.


Official Presidential Portrait of Chester A. Arthur, 1885

Despite the rumors Arthur didn’t want to become president. He genuinely wept when Garfield died. The job bored him so much that he lived for fishing and vacations.

Yet Arthur was determined to clean up his image. He decided to break with his old cronies and actually expanded civil service reform. He also took an interest in preserving the country’s natural resources and was especially concerned with deforestation in the West.

One of the few things Garfield enjoyed about being president was entertaining. He sold almost anything in the White House in order to pay for redecorating projects and hired Tiffany’s to help. Once he thought the place was presentable, the president held black tie dinners every week. The dinners included up to 14 courses and various wines. He had no hostess, though. His wife died before he became president.

Arthur could not run for re-election because he had contracted Bright’s disease. He died soon after leaving office.

Moving Toward Civil War: The Presidency of Franklin Pierce

As a young congressman, Franklin Pierce was fond of socializing and drank heavily. To please his wife who hated both Washington, D.C. and his drinking, he agreed to go back to his law practice in New Hampshire. He displeased her when he signed up for the Mexican War. Pierce wanted to serve his country but was a terrible general who suffered from multiple injuries and fainted often.

Portrait of Franklin Pierce

Portrait of Franklin Pierce

When the Democrats nominated him for president in 1852, his main advantage was that he had been out of politics for years and had no enemies. His journey to Washington turned tragic when he and his family were involved in a train wreck. He and his wife were unharmed, but their young son died. Mrs. Pierce refused to accompany her husband to his inauguration and returned to New Hampshire to grieve.

Though he was from a non-slave state, Pierce believed that the Constitution supported slavery. He made Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, a member of his cabinet. As president he enforced the Fugitive Slave Act that Northerners hated.

He also supported the Kanas Nebraska Act, which allowed people in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide whether they wanted slavery in those territories or not. Slave owners and abolitionists rushed into Kansas in an effort to influence the vote on slavery. The clashes between the slave owners and the abolitionists turned violent. Pierce was unable to unite the country or his party while the fighting continued.

Democrats passed over Pierce and nominated James Buchanan for the next election. When the South left the Union, Pierce wrote a letter of support to his friend Jefferson Davis. The letter became public and Pierce was viewed in his own state as a traitor. The increasingly reclusive former president drank so much after his wife’s death that he also died.