The great game of puppy politics

A leaflet distributed at a workshop of the Republican Party in Hartford, Conn. is simply overflowing with advice on the ways a candidate can get elected in November. For example, it instructs the office-seeker "How to Buy Radio Commercials." ("Generally news departments are friendlier at stations where you've bought time. . . .")

Then the manual gets right down to serious business. While stressing the need of an attractive portrait for the candidate's brochure, the prose suddenly leaps to capitalized attention: "NOTE: If you have a family dog, include the dog in the picture. Voters seem to love family photos and dogs."

We don't want to make a big point of it, but the last man who got elected by a dog was Richard Nixon, whose tearful speech in defense of his puppy "Checkers" nailed down his vice-presidential nomination, just when General Eisenhower was expected to drop him as a running mate if he could not prove himself "clean as a hound's tooth."

We have never been quite sure how clean a hound's tooth is -- and in the case of our hound, we have not been eager to find out.

Nor have we ever been certain how much of a dog- lover President Nixon really is. Dogs, like bowling, do not seem a passionate part of his daily life. He bowled on one well-publicized occasion with his tie on, and that's how we've always though of him with "Checkers" too.

Lyndon Johnson struck us as more of a true dog- lover, though he got in famous trouble for lifting a hound by its ears -- possibly while checking out its teeth.

President Nixon stroked "Checkers" symbolically, we are convinced, rather than in the tongue-panting flesh. "Checkers" was cast as the campaign contribution he would not return -- no sir, not if it cost him the vice-presidency of the United States. And, of course, "Checkers" did just the opposite. "Checkers" was a debater's argument, and he made his point.

The horse used to be the animal a candidate wanted to pose with. If not carried too far, the image of a man on horseback suggested strength -- the living stuff that statues in the park used to be made of. From Alexander the Great to Teddy Roosevelt, mastery of a horse somehow translated into mastery of men.

Henry Kissinger, the last of the 19th-century men, once dreamed aloud of being tall in the saddle.

Alas-saddle-busting authority is not exactly what a candidate wants to mine these days. We 1980 voters will not stand for the riding crop and the heavy boot. We'll barely tolerate a jutting jaw. If a candidate wants to get our vote, it seems, he had best not act too extraordinary. Is there a better animal than a dog to provide the common touch? The dog is as safe a taste as vanilla ice cream and apple pie.

But we have a confession to make. We would jump at the chance to vote for a president who loves cats, though the cat is all wrong as a political symbol, and Connecticut Republicans (and all other office-seekers) are well-advised to lock their cats in the basement when the campaign photographer comes around to shoot the family scene.

A politician who loves cats would project coolness rather than warmth. He would strike voters as solitary to a fault. Worst of all, he would appear aristocratic rather than democratic. He would certainly never wag his tail at us or come when we called. We could never teach him tricks. When he deigned to look at us, there would be something about his eyes that would make us wonder who elected whom.

The pharaohs might get away with a cat, but Ronald Reagan -- or a Connecticut Republican -- would never dare try.

We just hate to say it, but if "Checkers" had been a cat that Mr. Nixon (sob!) refused to give back, the country would have sat there with eyes as dry as the Painted Desert, and Ike would have found another running mate, a lot cleaner than a Siamese cat's tooth, we can tell you.

Is this an argument in favor of cats of dogs? We leave that to cat-lovers and dog-lovers to settle for themselves, on or before the first Tuesday in November.

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