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The presidential dogfight

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Kathleen Parker
April 18, 2012
— I take a back seat to no one when it comes to loving dogs. For that matter, my dog takes a back seat to no one.

Ollie rides shotgun.


Thus, the story of Seamus, the Romneys’ dog who famously rode atop the family car in a crate en route to vacation (to Ontario, Canada, 12 hours away)—and suffered acute gastrointestinal inconvenience requiring a mid-trip hose-down—has caused me considerable distress. I know Mitt and Ann Romney to be lovely people who undoubtedly adored their dog, but how does one make this event seem less awful?


By way of furthering my own credentials, Ollie is a five-pound, 10-year-old blind poodle I adopted from a shelter two and a half years ago after a dinner party where I was, as we Southerners say, “overserved.” For elaboration, you’ll have to wait for the book, but suffice to say, Ollie was born blind and his original humans, who bought him at a pet store, dropped him off at the shelter, reportedly, because they were tired of him.


I am his seeing-eye human—and where I go, Ollie goes. Not all is snails and puppy-dog tails, I confess. He can sometimes be obstreperous when he is “lost in space.” That is, disoriented and unable to find me the instant his poodle brain registers that he is not, in fact, nestled in the crook of my elbow, a preferred spot that has resulted in a rather dogged case of “Poodle Elbow.”


Yet, under no circumstances imaginable would my pooch be relegated to the top of a car, no matter how fancy the crate. Car too small? Get a bigger one—or a smaller dog. Not enough room for five boys and an Irish setter? Leave one of the kids at home. Kidding, kidding.


I’ve held my tongue all these months for several reasons, not least because Gail Collins of The New York Times had a Doberman’s grip on the subject and wouldn’t let go. Once a columnist takes ownership of a subject, as Collins did by mentioning Seamus more than 30 times at last count, other wags surrender the territory. Consider it an unwritten law of the sandlot.


But now President Obama has crossed into dog territory. Ever since the Obama campaign implicitly put Seamus into play, Romney’s family vacation has become a dogfight of a different order. And really, why wouldn’t dogs become a metaphor for this political race? Has there ever been so much circling the hydrant?


Obama, as the entire world knows, has a dog named Bo, whose addition to the first family was a promise kept to his daughters upon winning the presidency. Needless to say, Bo has never been crated on the roof of a car. When he travels, he doesn’t even have to make sure his seat back and tray table are in the upright position. Presumably, Seamus, whose infamous vacation took place in 1983, would have enjoyed better travel accommodations as First Dog.


As timing would have it, Seamus is now a metaphor for the characteristics Romney critics find unappealing—out of touch, lacking in compassion, pragmatic to a fault. Who puts his dog on top of a car speeding down the highway? Will HUD be next?


By contrast, in a photo now in circulation, Obama is shown extending an outstretched hand to an eager Bo. The president is crouched down at dog level, balancing on his toes with his jacket slung over a shoulder, and smiling. Unlike Romney, by implication, Obama is friendly, approachable and at one in bow-wowness.


Pet owners have noticed. A Facebook page created by the president’s campaign, “Pet Lovers for Obama,” gives animal lovers a place to show their pets’ support for the Obama/Biden ticket. Members of the group “Dogs Against Romney” have staged protests. Stand by for more canine chicanery.


When national issues are so complex, such distilled calculations may provide political relief, but is this really the way to pick a president?


In defense of their dog policy, Ann Romney recently told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that Seamus liked riding in the crate because he understood that it meant he was going on vacation. Mitt Romney, who said attacks about Seamus have been the most “wounding” of the campaign, also said he wouldn’t put Seamus in a crate again.


Which leaves voters with two choices: Forgive Romney, as surely Seamus did. Or, condemn a man with a knack for economic recovery for his flip-flopping just this one last doggone time.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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