Election Day 2016 brought surprises and firsts. Donald Trump will be the only president in U.S. history with no military or political experience and the oldest and richest president ever sworn into office. Melania Trump might be the first of all the first ladies to telecommute.
But one first has seldom been mentioned: Barring a new addition to his household between now and Jan. 20, Donald Trump will be the first president in 150 years who does not have a pet.
If horses are included, every president except James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson has owned a pet for at least part of his term in office, and with these furry first friends have come a host of political benefits. Aside from the possible physical and psychological benefits they’ve bestowed on first families, presidential pets have for decades served to soften the president’s image and garnered positive White House news coverage.
In the digital age, when interest in online animal content dwarfs interest in political news, the absence of a Trump pet amounts to a forfeiture of low-hanging political fruit.
Since the nation’s founding, presidential pets have ranged from the conventional to the exotic. Martin Van Buren had tiger cubs, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt had bears, and Calvin Coolidge had a pygmy hippopotamus. In recent decades, presidents have stuck to cats and dogs, and administrations have strategically spotlighted the president’s relationship with the animals to great effect.
Lyndon Johnson’s beagles made the cover of Life magazine in 1964, providing at least a brief respite from contentious coverage over civil rights and the Vietnam War. To this day, a book written in the first-person voice of Barbara Bush’s springer spaniel Milly has outsold the memoirs of the former first lady and former president George H.W. Bush.
Perhaps no administration has leveraged a pet to greater effect than the current one. Even before taking office, the Obamas generated a tidal wave of positive coverage by announcing that, win or lose the election, the Obama girls would be getting a dog. And today, Bo and Sunny are so popular that the two Portuguese water dogs have official White House schedules, which Michelle Obama approves at the beginning of each month.
Given these recent successes, what explains Trump’s pet-less-ness?
We can only surmise. One possibility: Trump, a self-identified “clean hands freak,” may be averse to the microbes that come with a four-legged friend.
While it is not known whether Trump enjoys the company of animals, he has been publicly criticized by the Humane Society of the United States for his close relationships with critics of welfare activists as well as for his sons’ passion for trophy hunting. As the organization noted in its unprecedented endorsement of Hillary Clinton, Trump may have difficulty relating to the 79 million American households that count pets among their family members and care about the policies affecting them.
But Trump may feel he is relatable enough as is. Though he lives in a Versailles-inspired Manhattan penthouse and travels in private jets and helicopters, Trump’s political-outsider status fueled a rise backed by millions of followers who viewed him as a refreshingly authentic voice amid a sea of poll-tested, prepackaged candidates. Trump eats fast food regularly and unapologetically. He speaks plainly and extemporaneously. He tweets impulsively in the middle of the night. He is, for better and worse, an average American in many ways.
Still, even if the president-elect sees no need for an image boost, it may help him to have a friendly animal around.
Perhaps most important for Trump, a man who has fixated on trivial slights for decades and constantly describes himself in superlative terms, animals can simultaneously boost self-esteem and keep ego in check. They love unconditionally, forgive unreservedly and always behave honestly. Animals don’t care whether you spent the last year maligning or humiliating your opponents, or whether your opponents embarrassed and degraded you. It makes no difference to them whether you are the leader of the Free World or you’ve never been a leader at all.
To them, we are just larger animals who know how to open the refrigerator.
So, Mr. President-elect: For your own good, the good of your administration, and the good of the nation, please get a puppy.
Lauren A. Wright is author of On Behalf of the President and a board member of the White House Transition Project. Find her on Twitter @drlaurenawright.