The Bizarre History of White House Pets

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In his victory speech on Tuesday night, Barack Obama promised his daughters Sasha and Malia that they'd get to bring a new puppy with them to the White House in January. It's a good thing Obama said "Yes, we can" to the girls' request; for all of his charm, ability, and oratorical flair, he could never be our nation's chief executive without a White House pet. Counting Obama, the country has had 44 Presidents, and only two of them—Chester A. Arthur and Franklin Pierce—left no record of having pets. Like Obama himself, the family pooch will have some big shoes to fill. Previous White House pets have set the bar pretty high. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. Billy: Calvin Coolidge's Pygmy Hippopotamus

Calvin Coolidge may have been known for his reticence, but he showed little of his trademark reserve when it came to acquiring pets. After taking over the presidency upon the death of Warren G. Harding, Coolidge assembled a menagerie that would rival most zoos' collections. He had six dogs, a bobcat, a goose, a donkey, a cat, two lion cubs, an antelope, and a wallaby. The main attraction in his personal zoo, though, was Billy, a pygmy hippopotamus.

Billy was born in Liberia, but was captured at a young age. He came into the possession of tire mogul Harvey Firestone, who gave Billy to President Coolidge as a gift, possibly because Firestone didn't want to feed the critter. (Even a pygmy hippo is still quite rotund; Billy was six feet long and weighed upwards of 600 pounds.)

Coolidge donated Billy to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. Since there were only a handful of pygmy hippos in the U.S. at the time, Billy quickly went to work as a stud, an endeavor at which he found some success. He sired 23 little hippos, and many of the pygmy hippos you see in American zoos today are his offspring.

2. The White House Gators

Herbert Hoover wanted to put a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage, and"¦a gator in the Oval Office? It's true. Hoover owned a slew of dogs, but those weren't his only pets. His second son, Allan Henry Hoover, owned a pair of gators that were occasionally allowed to wander around the White House grounds. Sound crazy? Blame John Quincy Adams for setting the precedent. The sixth president also had a pet gator. His was a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette; it lived in a bathroom in the East Room of the White House. According to some reports, he enjoyed using the gator to scare his guests.

3. Fala: FDR's Traveling Companion

What do you get the Depression-conquering president who has everything? A lapdog. In 1940 Franklin Roosevelt received a Scottish Terrier puppy named Big Boy as an early Christmas gift from a family friend. FDR immediately realized that Big Boy was no name for a presidential companion and rechristened the pooch Murray the Outlaw of Falahill, after a Scottish ancestor. For the sake of simplicity, though, he called his new pal Fala.

After that, Fala became FDR's inseparable companion and traveled everywhere the President went. The dog "gave" $1 a day to the war effort, generosity that earned him the rank of honorary private in the Army. Each morning when FDR's breakfast tray came in, it included a bone for Fala. Fala also made a famous appearance in one of his master's speeches. When FDR was decrying personal attacks from his political opponents, he jokingly said that it was okay to mock him, but leave Fala alone. "You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him — at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or 20 million dollars — his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since!" Fala stayed with FDR until the President's death in 1945 and lived in the care of Eleanor Roosevelt until his death in 1952.

4. Millie: Literary Sensation

When George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, he brought his pet springer spaniel Millie to the White House. The bubbly canine won over the nation's heart so completely that she even collaborated with the First Lady on Millie's Book: As Dictated to Barbara Bush. Millie brought further joy to the Bush family when she gave birth to a litter of six presidential puppies in 1989. Just as her master helped slip one of his boys into the White House, so did Millie: when George W. Bush moved into the Oval Office, so did his dog, Millie's son Spot Fetcher.

5. Barney, Miss Beazley & India: The Current Residents

Sadly, Spot Fetcher had to be put down in 2004, but the Bushes aren't pet-deprived now. They have a pair of Scottish Terriers named Barney and Miss Beazley, both of whom have websites and appear in White House-produced web videos. (Your tax dollars adorably at work!) The Bushes also have a black cat named India, who also goes by "Willie." The name India rankled some citizens of the country of the same name to the point that many Indians supposedly named their dogs "Bush." The name wasn't meant to be controversial, though; the Bushes merely named their cat after Ruben "El Indio" Sierra, who played for the Texas Rangers while George W. owned the team. Spot Fetcher was similarly named after former Rangers middle infielder Scott Fletcher.

Other First Pets of Note:

Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection "“ Benjamin Harrison's two opossums. Harrison's son Russell also had a pet goat named Old Whiskers.

Pauline "“ The last cow to live at the White House. She made milk for President Taft's consumption.

Old Ike "“ To save cash during World War I, Woodrow Wilson brought in a flock of sheep to take care of the White House's groundskeeping duties. Old Ike, a ram, supposedly chewed tobacco.

Laddie Boy "“ Warren G. Harding's beloved Airedale who had his own seat at Cabinet meetings and gave a 1921 "interview" with The Washington Post in which he talked about Prohibition and shortening the workday for guard dogs.

Liberty (pictured) "“ Gerald Ford's golden retriever hung out in the Oval Office and could supposedly read a sign from Ford that she should go be affectionate to guests—a cute and cuddly way to gracefully end the President's conversations.

Socks and Buddy "“ President Clinton's faithful cat and the chocolate lab he acquired while in office. Socks didn't like Buddy's youthful friendliness, so the two pets had to be kept separated at all times. The tensions were so bad that the family couldn't keep both pets at the end of Bill's second term, so Socks went to live with Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie.

Gamecocks "“ Ulysses S. Grant supposedly kept some gamecocks at the White House.

Two tiger cubs "“ Martin Van Buren received the cats as a gift from the Sultan of Oman. Congress supposedly made him give the gift to a zoo.

Satan "“ One of Abigail Adams' unfortunately named dogs. She called the other one Juno.

Jonathan Edwards "“ Theodore Roosevelt received this black bear cub as a gift from supporters in West Virginia who gave the bear the name, he wrote to a friend, "partly because they thought they detected Calvinistic traits in the bear's character."

Dr. Johnson, Bishop Doane, Fighting Bob Evans, and Father O'Grady "“ Teddy Roosevelt's kids also had these tremendously named guinea pigs.

Josiah "“ Roosevelt also had a pet badger, of course.

Bonus Trivia: Checkers

Nixon's dog was immortalized in the "Checkers speech," which Nixon gave while facing allegations of illegal campaign contributions. He said the only gift he'd accepted was a cocker spaniel named Checkers for his daughters. Checkers, however, was never the White House dog. This scandal bubbled up while Nixon was Eisenhower's running mate in the 1952 election, and Nixon gave the Checkers speech to convince Republicans to keep him on the ticket. Although the speech was a success and Nixon later made it to the White House, Checkers never got to be First Dog; he passed away in 1964.

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10 Facts About Lyndon B. Johnson

Born in a farmhouse and destined for the White House, Lyndon Baines Johnson took the oath of office on Air Force One just hours after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

His presidency was marked by successes in the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, environmental and consumer protection laws, gun control, and the creation of Medicaid and Medicare. But it was also marred by an inherited Vietnam War, which he expanded. Its profound unpopularity, transposed onto Johnson himself, led him to refuse standing for reelection in 1968, ending an extensive and monumental political career.

1. HE STARTED OUT AS A TEACHER.

To pay for his time at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (which is now Texas State University), Johnson taught for nine months at a segregated school for Mexican-American children south of San Antonio. The experience, as well as his time teaching in Pearsall, Texas, and in Houston, shaped his vision of how the government should help educate the country's youth. After signing the Higher Education Act of 1965, which used federal funds to help colleges extend financial aid to poor students, he remarked on his time teaching at the Welhausen Mexican School, saying, “It was then that I made up my mind that this nation could never rest while the door to knowledge remained closed to any American.”

2. HE WAS ALSO A JANITOR.

Johnson not only shared in the unfortunate tradition among teachers of using his own paycheck to pay for classroom supplies, he also wore multiple hats during his tenure as an educator. He taught fifth, sixth, and seventh grades, managed a team of five teachers, supervised the playground, coached a boys’ baseball team and the debate team, and mopped floors as the school’s janitor.

3. HE HAD A HEAD START IN POLITICS.

American President Lyndon Baines Johnson addresses the nation on his first thanksgiving day television programme, broadcast from the executive offices of the White House
Keystone/Getty Images

Johnson’s father, Samuel Ealy Johnson, Jr., was a member of the Texas State House of Representatives for nine non-consecutive years. His guidance and connections helped Johnson enter politics, and at the age of 23, just one year out of college, Johnson was appointed by U.S. Representative Richard M. Kleberg as his legislative secretary on the advice of Johnson’s father and another state senator whom Johnson had campaigned for.

Johnson became a leader of the congressional aides, a dedicated supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt (who became president a year after Johnson began work in the House), and the head of the Texas branch of the National Youth Administration—a New Deal agency meant to help young Americans find work and education.

4. HE WAS AWARDED A SILVER STAR DURING WWII.

Johnson won election to the United States House of Representatives in 1937, representing a district that encompassed Austin and the surrounding hill country. He would serve there for 12 years, but he would also serve as a Lieutenant Commander in the Naval Reserve in the middle of his tenure as a representative. He was called to active duty three days after Pearl Harbor, eventually reported to General Douglas MacArthur in Australia, and on June 9, 1942, volunteered as an onboard observer for an air strike mission on the south shore of New Guinea that had fatal consequences.

Possibly because of heavy fire or a mechanical failure, the B-26 bomber Johnson was on returned to base while another (which carried Johnson’s roommate at the time) was shot down with no survivors. MacArthur awarded Johnson a Silver Star for his involvement, although some view it as a political trade for Johnson lobbying President Roosevelt for more resources in the Pacific.

5. HIS ENTRY INTO THE SENATE WAS A “LANDSLIDE.”

Johnson toured Texas in a helicopter for a 1948 Senate primary race that pitted him against former Governor Coke Stevenson and state representative George Peddy. Stevenson led the first round of voting, but, without a majority, a runoff was called. Johnson won it (and the nomination) by only 87 votes out of 988,295 (.008 percent) amid accusations of voter fraud. Biographer Robert Caro noted that Johnson’s campaign manager (and future governor) John B. Connally was connected with over 200 suspicious ballots from voters who claimed they hadn’t voted, with election judge Luis Salas claiming almost 30 years later that he’d certified 202 phony ballots for Johnson. Stevenson challenged Johnson’s win in court but lost, and Johnson went on to beat Republican Jack Porter in the general election. The accusations of fraud and the tight margin of his primary victory earned him the ironic nickname [PDF] “Landslide Lyndon.”

6. HE ALMOST DIED WHILE SERVING IN THE SENATE.

Emperor Haile Selassie saluting and US President Lyndon B Johnson holding his hand to his heart as the National Anthems are played, at the White House in Washington DC, February 18th 1967
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A demanding boss, workaholic, and chain smoker, Johnson had a heart attack in the summer of 1955 during his time as Senate Majority Leader. Within a few days of the health scare, he had telephones and mimeograph machines brought to his hospital room so he could resume an intensely long work day. He stopped smoking, but he would later describe his heart attack as “the worst a man could have and still live.”

7. HE WAS ONE OF FOUR PEOPLE TO HOLD FOUR DISTINGUISHED OFFICES.

Among the most trivial of trivia (be sure to memorize it for your pub quiz night) is Johnson’s rare, strange distinction of the combination of offices held. Following John Tyler and Andrew Johnson, and followed by Richard Nixon, Johnson is one of only four people to have been a United States representative, the Senate Majority Leader, the vice president, and the president of the United States. At age 44, Johnson also became the youngest person ever to serve as Senate Minority Leader. Don’t ever say we haven’t helped you win bar trivia.

8. HE VOTED AGAINST EVERY CIVIL RIGHTS BILL IN HIS FIRST 20 YEARS AS A LEGISLATOR.

Johnson’s legacy is tied directly to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he was an imperfect vessel for change. As a representative and senator, he’d voted down every civil rights proposal set before him, aligning with the post-Reconstruction south, calling President Truman’s civil rights program “a farce and a sham—an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty.” Johnson changed his tune as a senator in 1957 and stridently coerced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the most sweeping civil rights expansion since Reconstruction, as president.

9. JOHNSON’S STYLE OF COERCION WAS CALLED “THE TREATMENT.”

American President Lyndon Baines Johnson addresses the nation on his first thanksgiving day television programme, broadcast from the executive offices of the White House
Keystone/Getty Images

At 6 feet, 4 inches, Johnson towered over most colleagues, and he used that physicality to his benefit. When he needed to extract a favor from someone, he'd simply stand over them with his face inches from their own and tell them just what he needed, in a move dubbed "The Johnson Treatment." Beyond bodying his opponents and friends, Johnson would also promise to help them, remind them of times he’d helped them, coax, flatter, goad, and predict doom and gloom for those who weren’t on his side.

10. HIS REELECTION WAS A TRUE LANDSLIDE.

After the 87-vote debacle that launched him into the Senate, Johnson experienced a genuine electoral phenomenon befitting someone nicknamed “Landslide.” In the 1964 campaign, Johnson faced not only Republican Barry Goldwater, but also questionable popularity. He’d never been elected president in his own right, and his leadership on the Civil Rights Act had southern supporters questioning their loyalty. To counteract the latter development, Johnson deployed his greatest political ally, his wife Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, to tour the south in a train, passing out her pecan pie recipe alongside campaign buttons. After the final tally, Johnson kept Texas and half the south, winning 44 states and 61.05 percent of votes cast—the largest-ever share of the popular vote.

10 Facts About Gerald Ford

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Former president Gerald Ford (1913-2006) had the unenviable task of following a disgraced Richard Nixon, the first man to resign from the presidency, in the wake of the Watergate scandal. During his relatively short 895 days as president, Ford had to attempt to restore American confidence in the Oval Office. For more on our 38th president, take a look at some of the more unusual facts about his early years, his political feats, and why he once considered being a co-president with Ronald Reagan.

1. HE WASN’T BORN GERALD FORD.

Ford was born Leslie Lynch King Junior, son to Leslie Lynch King and Dorothy King, on July 14, 1913 in Omaha, Nebraska. After his parents got a divorce, his mother remarried a paint salesman named Gerald Rudolff Ford. After his mother remarried, the future president was referred to as “Junior King Ford.” According to his autobiography, around the age of 12, Ford found out that Ford Sr. wasn’t his biological father. But the fact didn’t sink in until 1930, when King visited him. Ford recalled their conversation as “superficial.” His birth-father handed him $25 and disappeared. The future President legally changed his name to Gerald Ford in 1935.

2. HE WAS A SEXY MALE MODEL.

A young Gerald Ford poses while wearing his football uniform
Michigan University/Getty Images

Ford was always on the lookout for ways to earn money to make his way through law school—so when he was asked to pose for a Look magazine photo spread with girlfriend and model Phyllis Brown in 1940, he did it. The 26-year-old Ford cavorted in the snow with Brown as part of a layout on winter vacationing.

3. HE HAD AN ODD WEDDING.

After attending Yale and entering law practice in Michigan, Ford became interested in politics. He won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1948, a post he would occupy for the next 25 years. That same year, Ford married Elizabeth “Betty” Bloomer, a former dancer and model. Ford later recalled that he was so busy campaigning that he arrived only minutes before the ceremony with mud still on his shoes. The wedding had been delayed until just before the 1948 House election because Ford was concerned conservative voters might take issue with marrying an ex-dancer who had already been divorced.

4. PARDONING NIXON EARNED HIM A TON OF GRIEF.

Gerald Fold waves while standing next to Richard Nixon
Ian Showell, Keystone/Getty Images

When Ford took office in August 1974, the American public looked on to see how he would adjudicate the fate of the man he was replacing. Nixon, who resigned rather than face impeachment, could have been up on federal criminal charges. But Ford opted to grant him a full pardon, reasoning that a prolonged trial and punishment wouldn’t allow the country to move past the controversy. Immediately, his White House Press Secretary, J.F. TerHorst, left his job after determining that he could not “in good conscience support [Ford’s] decision to pardon former President Nixon.”

5. HE TOOK BEING A COMEDIC TARGET IN STRIDE.

Despite his background as an athlete—he played football at Michigan—Ford had the misfortune of being caught on camera when he suffered an occasional lapse into klutziness. He once tripped down the stairs while de-boarding Air Force One; while skiing, a chair lift hit his back. The footage inspired Chevy Chase’s portrayal of Ford as a klutz on Saturday Night Live, which Ford took in stride. Sensing the American public wanted someone less like the studious, humorless Nixon, he appeared on SNL and once pulled up a tablecloth next to Chase during a formal dinner in 1975. “The portrayal of me as an oafish ex-jock made for good copy,” Ford wrote. “It was also funny.”

6. HE DIDN’T SPEAK THE MOST GOOD.

Gerald Ford makes a public appearance
AFP/Getty Images

In addition to Ford’s clumsiness, satirists had a lot to dine out on when it came to some of Ford’s Yogi Berra-esque tongue slips. Americans, he once said, were possessed of a strong “work ethnic,” while “sickle-cell Armenia” was a disease for which he offered sympathy.

7. HE ONCE LOCKED HIMSELF OUT OF THE WHITE HOUSE.

Ford, a dog lover, adopted a golden retriever the family named Liberty after he had already taken office. (Calling a breeder in Minneapolis, the White House photographer and friend of Ford’s, David Kennerly, told the kennel’s owner he was acting on behalf of a middle-aged couple that “live in a white house with a big yard.”) One night, the trainer was absent, and Liberty approached Ford at 3 a.m. to be let out. After doing her business on the south lawn, she and Ford tried to get back inside. When no one sent the elevator back down, Ford decided to take the stairs. The door to the second floor swung only one way: He got out, but couldn’t get back in. Eventually, the Secret Service was alerted to his absence and let him inside.

8. HE WAS THE TARGET OF TWO ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTS IN THE SAME MONTH.

Gerald Ford stands in front of an American flag while delivering a speech
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Had it been up to two different women, Ford wouldn’t have lived to the ripe age of 93. On September 5, 1975, a disciple of Charles Manson’s named Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pulled out a .45 pistol during Ford’s visit to Sacramento, California in the hopes of winning Manson’s approval. She was unable to fire a shot before the Secret Service apprehended her. In San Francisco 17 days later, Ford’s life was again threatened by a woman named Sara Jane Moore, a left-wing activist prone to mood swings. Moore was able to fire, though the bullet didn’t land anywhere near Ford. Both women were charged with attempted murder and stood trial. Fromme was sentenced to life and was released in 2009. Moore was also sentenced to life but got paroled in 2007.

9. HE CONSIDERED A CO-PRESIDENCY WITH REAGAN.

A former president has never gone on to become a running mate for a presidential candidate, but Ford thought about it. In 1980, as Ronald Reagan was preparing for a Republican nomination, his team thought Midwesterner Ford would be appealing to voters who felt distanced by Reagan’s West Coast presence. Ford, however, chafed at the diminished powers of a vice-president and instead asked that Reagan’s campaign consider a “co-presidency” ticket that would give him greater influence in office. The idea was floated, but Reagan was ultimately unwilling to cede so much influence to Ford. He ran—and won—with George H.W. Bush instead.

10. HE PLAYED HIMSELF ON DYNASTY.

Gerald Ford stands next to wife Betty during a public appearance
Lucy Nicholson, AFP/Getty Images

It’s rare that former presidents accept acting roles on primetime soaps, even when playing themselves. Ford was willing to buck that trend in 1983 when he appeared on Dynasty, the ABC series about the wealthy Carrington family of Denver, Colorado. The series was shooting a scene at a real charity ball in Denver in 1983 when producers spotted Ford and his wife, Betty, among those in attendance. They pitched him a scene in which he would briefly greet actors John Forsythe and Linda Evans. After being promised Betty would be on camera as well, Ford agreed. Both were paid scale: $330.

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