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Why do so many of us want our elected officials to love dogs?

Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his car with his Scottish terrier, Fala, in 1941.
Hulton Archive
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Getty Images
Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his car with his Scottish terrier, Fala, in 1941.

When South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem revealed in her new book that she had shot her puppy for bad behavior, she may have united the country, however inadvertently.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote, "We may not like one another all that much these days but red or blue, MAGA or woke, we sure do love dogs."

Morning Edition host Michel Martin spoke with Scott about the history of presidents and their pups.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Michel Martin: What is it about politicians and dogs?

A.O. Scott: Since the 1890s, only two presidents — only William McKinley and Donald Trump — have not been dog owners, which is kind of extraordinary. ... It humanizes them. ... If you're out in the world and you see someone who's walking a dog, you have a good feeling about that person, whatever else may be true of that person, and whether or not you agree with that person's politics.

Martin: What are some of the notable presidential dogs?

Scott: There was Bill Clinton's dog — Bill Clinton had a cat first and then added the Labrador retriever. In presidential history, probably the most dog-identified in presidents is Lyndon Johnson, who is remembered for when he picked up one of his two beagles by the ears. But he was such a dog lover, he released a record called "Dogs Have Always Been My Friends."

Former President Bill Clinton trying to get his dog, Buddy, and his cat, Socks, to play together as a White House photographer looks on just outside the Oval Office in 1998.
Luke Frazza / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Former President Bill Clinton trying to get his dog, Buddy, and his cat, Socks, to play together as a White House photographer looks on just outside the Oval Office in 1998.

In a way, like, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon may be the most vividly dog-identified presidents. Nixon because of the Checkers speech. That was before he was president, and he was chosen to be Eisenhower's running mate, and then sort of a scandal popped up where it was alleged that he'd been taking money and gifts from some supporters. And one gift that he'd gotten, was a cocker spaniel named Checkers.

Martin: Let's go back to Kristi Noem before we let you go. I've read a number of pieces about that. Frankly, for me, some of the most critical have been from outdoorsmen — people who work with animals, who live with animals — who just say, look, this is just not how we do things.

Scott: That's been my impression, too. I mean, I think that she was trying to present herself as tough, decisive, unsentimental, you know, that — right, all of these sort of liberals on the coast or in the cities, they love their dogs, they coddle their dogs, they send their dogs to psychiatrists. And in a way, I think she was trying to present herself as a real dog person.

The thing that to me was kind of startling about it was the sort of relish with which she told the story, the sort of glee. You know, when Atticus Finch goes out to shoot the rabid dog in the street in To Kill A Mockingbird, he's not happy about it.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.