The political animal loves dogs. History records the names of almost 80 dogs that frolicked with our presidents and their families, but only five cats.
Why would anyone who spends his days pursued by fawning, hand-shaking humans turn to fawning, tail-wagging dogs for relaxation? Perhaps rather than seek the counsel of an independent, insouciant, inscrutable cat, many presidents felt more comfortable with the unflagging loyalty of a dog.
To be sure, the greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, loved cats -- at least, he was seen on his knees playing with a cat. According to Margaret Truman's book, White House Pets, when Willie Lincoln's cat had a litter, Willie's father Abe helped name the kittens. What names he chose, history does not tell us, perhaps because on the day Willie's cat had a litter, so did Tad's dog.
Tad was the other Lincoln boy, a typical dog lover -- hyperactive, clumsy. Twelve-year-old Willie, poetic, thoughtful and his mother's joy, died before the end of his father's first year in office. His death so traumatized his mother that she banished most remembrances of Willie from the White House.
History is murky about the particulars, but we might suspect that mention of Willie's cats became a painful subject because we hear nothing more about them. The only other pet scene that history gives us is that of Abe sitting at the table for lunch with Jip curled up in his lap. Jip was a dog.
On Sept. 23, 1880, a brave cat leapt into the history books. At that time the unfinished Washington Monument was 160 feet high. At night a cat sought refuge there. When the construction crew arrived next morning, the frightened cat jumped.
The cat flew through the air, the workmen told reporters, and landed on its feet. There was nothing those men would not do for that amazing cat. But while they pledged to buy it a collar, out came the spoiler: A dog that was wont to lurk around the trees on the monument grounds took out after the dazed cat and killed it. There was nothing left to do but have the cat stuffed and give it to the Smithsonian where, according to a press report, it stayed until the 1890s.
That posthumous honor did little toward earning some respect for the rest of catkind. In August 1895, The Washington Star learned that a farm to raise cats for the fur trade was about to begin operations in Cincinnati. The wag on the editorial page speculated:
"This enterprise will be watched with breathless interest by the people of Washington and other cities, where, in many neighborhoods, there are cats enough to spare. The only thing that prevents residents in the infested localities from deriving a lucrative trade in cat skins is probably the fact that the variety of feline which awakens midnight echoes and fills the day with fleas and somnolency is not sufficiently select."
Unfortunately for cat lovers who might be angered enough to write a letter to the editor, the Washington Star has since gone out of business. Yet the editorial did suggest one cogent point: from 1800 to 1900, not one cat made a name for itself in the nation's capital.
Of course, cats are not fools. At best the United States was a third-rate country in the 19th century with a fourth-rate capital, most noted for its mud, which is the natural habitat of the dog. Cats are the cliff-dwellers of animalkind. It wasn't until the nation conquered Spain that one Slippers moved in with Teddy Roosevelt at the White House.
Slippers was a six-toed cat who in 1908 rated a feature article in St. Nicholas, the high-toned children's magazine of the era. Slippers hung around the White House kitchen and was said to have sprawled out on the floor of a White House hallway, forcing a procession of diplomats to make a detour.
Predictably, Slippers was overshadowed by White House dogs and snakes. Pete, a bull terrier, bit the French ambassador. And Alice Roosevelt's snake, Emily Spinach, was the talk of the town until the dowager empress of China gave her a Pekingese.
Slippers didn't set much precedent for future White House cats. The 300-pound president, William Howard Taft, kept a cow at the White House. Woodrow Wilson was fond of sheep. A statue of Harding's dog was presented to the Smithsonian.
A reader of Margaret Truman's White House Pets might think cats had finally found their rightful place in the White House when Coolidge took over. She writes: "Visitors would often come upon the President sitting on the porch with Tiger on his lap."
It's a beguiling picture, too beguiling. It's a species of Cool-Cal- the-Do-Nothing story that should be suspect. If Coolidge did all the things he was supposed to have done to prove he wasn't busy, then he was the busiest president in history. How could he idle away afternoons petting his cat when he was supposed to be sleeping in his office or window-shopping along F Street?
Returning to primary sources can be sobering.A December 1928 newspaper story of the Coolidge pets reads: "For one day the president went out 'on the front porch' of the White House with Tige on his lap." (Emphasis added.)
Photographers rushed to capture the scene and Tige (the correct name) disappeared. Truman retells the tale that Coolidge was so upset that he told a local radio station to broadcast a bulletin. The cat was found at the Navy Department and was returned only to disappear again.
A good yarn, but caution: Coolidge never listened to the radio; he was too busy. He also had an alliteration of dogs: Peter Pan, Paul Pry, Rob Roy, Prudence Prim, Tiny Tim, Ruby Rough, King Kole, et al. (All were named by his wife, which could explain why she married Calvin Coolidge.)
The next White House cat was Caroline Kennedy's Tom Kitten, who was sneezed out of national prominence because her father had a cat allergy.
Although there is more to cat Washington than the White House, our delicate system of checks and balances didn't do much for the furry critters. In the many pages written about the lives of those leonine greats who dominated Capitol Hill, not one cat leaps into our hearts. It seems legislators also preferred the lavish licks of dogs to the Will-the-Senator-yield stares of mature cats.
Two Capitol cats did make names in the 1920s. Mary and Dirty were ordinary mousers, but nevertheless were featured in a U.S. Capitol Historical Society calendar. It was written of Mary that she "is not pretty to look at, nor very careful about he personal appearance."
As unappealing as Mary and Dirty (fortunately left undescribed) seem, they do indicate that Washington was a town of celebrity dogs and working cats. The Post Office used cats to protect the mail from vermin. And when the nation faced the supreme test, cats were there, albeit humdrum bureaucats. Take General Grey, for example, a cat belonging to Elmer Davis, head of the Office of War Information in 1942. General Grey organized and led "Kittens for Britain," which proved to be bad news for Hitler and his dog, an Alsatian bitch named Blondi.