Dog Days at the White House!

Our book today is Traphes Bryant’s heart-warming memoir of being dogkeeper to five U.S. Presidents; he wrote Dog Days at the White House in 1975 with help from Frances Leighton, and the book instantly merited a position of honor in the crowded ranks of oddball White House memoirs (there are far, far more of these than the uninitiated might suspect, and a staggeringly high percentage of them are actually worth reading). Bryant was something of a general handyman around the White House, helpful with everything from press conferences to electrical work (and one of those soft-spoken, reassuringly calming presences that are gratefully welcomed in pretty much any high-tension workplace – if he’d had no skills at all, instead of the wide variety he possessed, all those administrations would still have found reasons to keep him around), but gradually – and somewhat to his surprise – he came to be the person in charge of the vast and shifting menagerie that was the presidential dog-show.

It was no small task (it never is – if the kennel-keeper for the Tudors had taken it into his head to write a memoir, his account of the never-ending chaos of the job would have read very similar to Bryant’s). As video technology advanced, as the White House grew closer and closer to the press that covered it, presidents learned the huge public relations potential of having a dog, being seen playing with a dog, or even being seen in a dog’s company – the idea being that if a dog likes the president, he can’t be all bad. It’s an idea with more than a little superstition in it, but nevertheless: Bryant’s account makes it clear that Richard Nixon’s dogs weren’t particularly fond of him. Nor was Bryant, though he tries to be diplomatic about it:

The second king in residence [after King Timahoe, the President's dog] was the President himself, who acquired the nickname of King Richard for the regal way he swept in and out of the White House in his limousine and the grand way he did just about everything. The way he lived. The way he treated his staff. The way he wanted to be treated. The way he seemed to be trying to build an empire by hand-picking men and training them at the White House and then sending them out to take over some government agency.

Such notes are struck often in these pages; Bryant is alive to the possible significance of his furry charges, noting, for instance, that during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy asked Bryant to bring his dog into the Oval Office for a little nerve-calming attention. Our author at least entertains the thought that he’s helping history get shaped:

Who can say how much White House dogs have influenced American history? How many Presidents have helped keep a balanced perspective on life, and thus make better decisions? How often have they made it easier for a President to win friends for the country, influence royalty, or win an election? I’d say a lot.

Naturally, he adores Jackie Kennedy, and most of his Kennedy-era stories revolve around her. He makes sure to tell us that one of his funniest (and most frequently repeated – it’s only in this book once, but it was a dinner party staple for decades) JFK stories gave Jackie Kennedy one of the heartiest laughs she ever got in the White House:

There was always something funny happening around the White House in the Kennedy days – even cases of mistaken identity seemed hilarious. One day President Kennedy walked through the Bouquet Room on his way to the pool. He said, “Hi, Charlie, how are you?” Charles Pecora, Mrs. Paul Mellon’s head gardener, who was helping Jacqueline, was in the Bouquet Room. He said, “Fine, Mr. President.” I could see he was amazed at the President’s friendliness and at the fact that the President knew his name. The President was a little startled too. He was speaking to Charlie the dog, who was lying down in his path. He had never set eyes on the visiting gardener before.

But the real star of Dog Days at the White House is President Lyndon Johnson. He takes up the majority of the book’s space, and it’s clear he won Bryant’s heart in a way no other president did, despite the fact that his priorities often confused Bryant:

3/29/66 The South West Gate was open for the presidential cars to exit for the reception given him at the Indian embassy by Her Excellency Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India. Everyone was waiting impatiently. The President came out of his office and leisurely petted the dogs on his way to his car. I guess Presidents get pretty jaded. If Indira Gandhi were giving a party for me I wouldn’t be standing around petting dogs.

(This also displays the curiously charming innocence Bryant managed to maintain through all his years in the White House; there are two very good political reasons why LBJ would have kept Indira Gandhi waiting while he petted his dogs, and the reader likes Bryant all the more for the fact that he never even suspects what they are).

More than the charm of the man, though, is the doggishness of him: as Bryant writes in one of his photo captions, “There is no way to describe how much dogs loved Lyndon Baines Johnson” – and during Johnson’s time in the Oval Office, that love extended into one of the oddest and most intense areas of human-dog interaction that anybody can visit: while Bryant was White House kennel keeper, Johnson fell in love with a beagle.

All other dogs have their charms (even basset hounds), and affection is the keystone of all those charms – but as anyone who’s ever experienced it will attest, there’s something peculiarly affecting about the special bond that can develop between one beagle and one master, and that happened to Johnson while he was President: he acquired two little beagles (in his characteristically laconic way, he called them Him and Her), and together they became the sunlight of his days (Bryant’s diary is filled with entries where the President called him up at the last minute to inform him that he’d be taking the dogs on some trip or other – and there are many, many sheepish requests for the kennel keeper’s permission to let Him and Her sleep in the residence overnight). You can see this with blinding clarity in what I think is one of the single best portraits of the pure joy of dogs: that great, iconic shot of LBJ greeting his beagles outside the Oval Office, where for one glorious instant, all three of them are so happy they’re utterly oblivious to the rest of the world:

It was Him who made that special inroad to the President’s heart – Bryant never saw LBJ more upset than he was the day Him died, and although many other dogs were to follow and be treasured, none of them filled that vacancy.

And speaking of filling vacancies: I’m not 100 percent certain the White House ever officially filled Bryant’s position once he retired (back fifty years ago, the White House could be oddly provincial and absent-minded about such things). If so, I hope that lucky person is keeping a diary.

1 Comment to Dog Days at the White House!

  1. Sam's Gravatar Sam
    July 17, 2011 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m loving the different glimpses of Nixon in these last posts, from all different directions. Makes me wonder if there exists a largely admiring account that’s at all credible. He was an enormously popular President, after all, until Watergate….

  1. By on July 24, 2011 at 9:02 pm

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