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The political pet

Ronnie Elmore charts the influence of White House critters


Ronnie Elmore, associate dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, has some campaign advice for this year's presidential candidates: Put your pets front and center.

Ronnie Elmore"I'm absolutely convinced that both candidates would do well to get animals into photo opportunities," said Elmore, a dedicated historian of U.S. presidents and their pets.

Such a directive will be easier for John McCain to follow than for Barack Obama. The Republican candidate's Arizona ranch is awash in creatures great and small, while the Democrat's allergy-afflicted family has no pets at all.

An AP/Yahoo! News survey found that pet-owning Americans, particularly those with dogs, favor McCain over Obama 42 percent to 37 percent. But among non-pet people, Obama leads McCain 48 percent to 34 percent.

Elmore has plenty of evidence that pets can do for presidents what Lassie did for Timmy: Dig them out of tight spots.
Richard Nixon, for example, was in danger of being dumped from the 1952 GOP ticket when his "Checkers speech," defending himself -- and his daughters' dog -- against accusations of financial misdeeds, produced a flood of public support.

Dwight Eisenhower kept Nixon aboard "and the rest is history," Elmore said.

Even when political pets weren't rescuing political careers, they have been the source of anecdotes and trivia that make Elmore a popular after-dinner speaker.

Such tidbits include that more than 400 animals have lived in the White House -- if you count the horses and cows in the outbuildings of earlier centuries, and that more presidents have owned dogs than cats. As for cats, though, Rutherford B. Hayes had the first Siamese in the United States, according to Elmore.

Elmore got hooked on presidential pet history when he and his wife came to K-State 18 years ago. Trips to the Eisenhower Center in Abilene became a habit, and curiosity about Ike's dogs blossomed into a broader inquiry.

Eisenhower's pets continue to be a natural topic of interest because of his ties to K-State. Milton Eisenhower, Ike's brother, was president of the university from 1943 to 1950. According to Elmore, Ike visited Manhattan Jan. 8, 1944, bringing a puppy to his niece, Ruthie. The puppy was the offspring of Ike's Scottish terrier Telek.

Bob Dole also has canine ties to K-State. Dole's family has owned a series of schnauzers dubbed "Leader Dole," who are commemorated with the Leader Dole Scholarship, which benefits veterinary students.

If Obama finds himself under pressure to close the pet deficit, he won't be the first presidential candidate to have a dog urged on him for image reasons, Elmore said. Advisers suggested to the dour Herbert Hoover that he get a dog; he chose a huge German shepherd named King Tut.

Elmore thinks that Obama's pet-free status won't last. The American Kennel Club has suggested several hypoallergenic breeds, and Elmore predicts that someone will very publicly give the Democratic candidate a dog he can't refuse.


Photo: Books, prints and photographs on the topic of U.S. presidents and their pets take pride of place in Ronnie Elmore's office. Among his collection is a vinyl 45 of Lyndon Johnson singing a duet with his dog. "It didn’t sell very well," Elmore said.