Political Animals

Last May, "U.S. News & World Report" announced that Richard Nixon's famous cocker spaniel, Checkers, might be exhumed from his resting place in the Bide-A-Wee Pet Memorial Park on Long Island and reburied at the Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California. The dog would arrive in time to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the September 23, 1952, "Checkers speech," in which Nixon, Dwight D. Eisenhower's running mate on the Republican presidential ticket, referred to the animal while responding to charges that he had made personal use of a campaign fund. Decades later, it seemed that the faithful animal might once again restore his master's besmirched reputation, as memories of Watergate threatened to soil the former president's posthumous legacy. The exhumation scenario was the stuff of high, if slightly ghoulish, melodrama. (Religions have begun with just such rumors.) Alas, the report wasn't true. Although a topiary Checkers graces the grounds at Yorba Linda, the remains of the real Checkers will remain on Long Island, where supporters regularly decorate his grave with tiny American flags.There's more to this rumor than the wishful thinking of reporters or Nixon disciples. Since the Checkers speech made both television and politicians' domestic lives essential components of American politics, relocating Checkers to a site where state-of-the-art interactive media and archival systems mingle with the simple domestic artifacts of Nixon's childhood home would be particularly appropriate. In fact, a strange attraction has regularly brought together presidential pets, innovations in information technology and household matters. Such intersections mark important shifts in both presidential politics and the intellectual life of the nation.The accusation against Nixon came just as the 1952 presidential campaign was heating up. Public opinion turned against him (though the charges later proved unfounded), and Eisenhower, along with Republican party leaders, decided the vice-presidential candidate should go before the people to clear his name. The ensuing address drew the first sizable national television audience ever to tune in to a political speech. In the climactic moment of the speech, Nixon mawkishly insisted that the black-and-white spaniel Checkers was the only campaign gift he'd ever accepted: "And you know the kids love that dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're going to keep it." When he had finished, Nixon asked viewers to "Wire and write the Republican National Committee whether you think I should stay on or whether I should get off." Support for Nixon was overwhelming after the speech, and Eisenhower kept him on the ticket.Viewers of the Checkers speech saw something unusual in American politics: a politician illuminating every last detail of his family's finances. Nixon explained how much money he had in his savings account, what he owed on his home, what his life insurance policy was worth. These revelations clearly pained Nixon, the reserved Quaker, and embarrassed many watchers who felt that Nixon, while proving his innocence, debased himself by discussing undignified matters of the pocketbook. To others, the performance humanized the man. The new medium of television heightened the impression of ordinariness conveyed by Nixon's financial accounting. Citizens witnessed his discomfort -- the dour expression and the sweaty face -- and, whether repelled or moved, could picture themselves in his predicament (or in Pat's; she was with him during the speech). Nixon seemed a regular guy, with regular money worries, called on by the boss to answer an unjust accusation.From then on the presidency would be a family show (sometimes a sit-com) combining grand emotions with the minutiae of running a household. The Checkers speech, as much as "The Honeymooners," "Lassie" or "I Love Lucy," inaugurated the golden age of television. Richard Nixon, who had some 'splainin of his own to do, brought into American living rooms the hokey expression of family values, and, like the best comedy, also articulated the anxieties that went along with them.As a medium mingling the dissemination of information with drama and confession (every gut-spilling celebrity who's ever told all to Geraldo or Oprah hearkens back to the Nixon of the Checkers speech), television would be the main vehicle through which presidents reached American citizens, and by which politicians themselves would increasingly be influenced. Even Eisenhower, who a few months later would become the first president to regularly watch television in the White House (he and Mamie often ate dinner in front of the tube, watching the news), had to view Nixon's speech to find out whether his running mate would resign or defend himself.Just as word of Checker's possible disinterment spread, another famous presidential pet departed for the hereafter: George and Barbara Bush's dog Millie. After appearing in numerous newspaper and magazine stories (she even made the cover of "Life"), Millie capitalized on her fame by "writing" the 1990 best-seller "Millie's Book, As Dictated to Barbara Bush." This book of pun-filled copy and whimsical photographs raised almost $1 million for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.It was, I suppose, too much to ask for Barbara Bush to come up with a topic that would sell briskly "and" exemplify her cause by giving Americans something worth reading. Instead, the book whose profits were to "help mobilize the creativity, resources, and will of a country as great as America and make it possible for us to take control of our literacy crisis and build a nation of readers by building families of readers" only further debased American literacy by fostering the vogue of celebrity "authored" books. "Millie's Book" anticipated such titles as Jerry Seinfeld's "Seinlanguage," Ellen DeGeneres' "My Point -- and I Do Have One," O.J. Simpson's "I Want to Tell You" and the upcoming "Jenny McCarthy's Uncensored Hollywood Diary": vehicles for warmed-over material from over-exposed celebrities whose inflated advances reroute money that might otherwise launch a few dozen serious books. In many cases these pampered "authors" can't even manage to pen their books without help from ghost writers. At least Millie had the excuse of not being born with opposable thumbs.Millie, like Checkers, has left her mark on media political coverage. The antics of Barbara, George and their dog effectively distracted Americans from investigations into the Iran-Contra affair. Thanks to "Millie's Book" and the coverage of a suck-up Washington press, "EXTRA!" could report, in its 1992 campaign issue, that four times as many Americans knew the name of the Bushes' dog as knew the name of a recently indicted former cabinet member (Caspar Weinberger).If Checkers spawned the humanized, televisual presidency, and Millie presided over the shift from book publishing to celebrity pandering, the Clintons' celebrated cat, Socks, presages the domestication of the World Wide Web. Bill Clinton, whose presidency has coincided with the rise of the Internet, has noted the speed with which the new technology has became popularized, as if the phenomenon he's describing constitutes progress: "Twenty years ago, only astrophysicists used the Internet; now, my cat has a web site." What awaits browsers at Socks' site? An autobiographical sketch "by" the cat that spins the Clintons' PR disasters much more effectively than the White House press secretary: "I did chew a little grass back in Little Rock," Socks confides, "but I never swallowed."The Clinton administration evidently prefers such electronic sludge to Web content that jeopardizes the status quo. By opposing encryption systems that can't be cracked by government agents and by signing the Communications Decency Act -- which, until the Supreme Court struck it down, threatened to limit free speech on the Internet -- President Clinton has done his best to housebreak the World Wide Web.Ever since the rebellious colonies took as their standard a snake that proclaimed "Don't Tread on Me," animals have been doing politicians' dirty work in America. In the 20th century they've been given more and more to say. Perhaps the only reason we have to lament Bob Dole's defeat in 1996 is that it robbed us of the opportunity to learn what wisdom Liddy Dole's prized exotic fish would have offered.

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