Socks, Bo and the politics of presidential pets

at 01:50 PM ET, 06/13/2012

An article in this month’s Political Science and Politics aims to address a “woeful
Bo: Man’s best friend or diversionary tactic? (Pablo Martinez Monsivais - AP)
deficiency” in the academic literature. That, of course, would be the lack of rigorous study of presidential pets.

Presidents have, for ages, kept pets at the White House. Back in 1881, President James Garfield had a large, black Newfoundland named Veto (yes, really). This article, titled “Unleashing Presidential Power: The Politics of Pets in the White House,” looked through major newspapers’ articles about presidential pets dating back to the 1960s. You can see that here:

Crunching the numbers, the article finds that White House dogs could be playing a diversionary role: They tend to get trotted out during times of international conflict and presidential scandal (no similar effect, it’s worth noting, was found for cats). Conversely, they tend to stay out of sight during tough economic times.

“We surmise that diversionary pets are a political liability when their frolicking on the White House lawn in hard times might cue the public that not everyone in the country is suffering equally and that being president is not a full-time job,” the authors conclude.

They do concede that the study has limitations: The United States has, for example, been involved in military conflicts for the majority of the months studied here. Reporters also play a big role in determining how much they want to cover presidential pets which could lead to “conflating in the analysis of presidential pet-showing and newspaper pet-reporting practices.”

Still, they describe their report as “an important contribution to a research program that will bring the dog into political analysis.”

 
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