Mitt Romney’s enduring problem is that we don’t know what lies beneath the eager-to-please demeanor that leads him to emit impenetrable lines like the one about loving Michigan because its “trees are the right height.”
This creates a vacuum that inevitably gets filled with morsels of insight like the old story about his onetime dog, Seamus. In a Web ad deployed last month during the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich resurrected a 2007 Boston Globe article telling the tale of how Romney strapped the family’s Irish setter to the roof of the car in a crate for a 12-hour drive to Canada. According to the candidate’s son Tagg, stops were carefully calculated to allow the hound to answer the call of nature, but Seamus didn’t get the memo. Dad calmly pulled into a gas station, hosed down the dog, the car and the crate, and the terrifying ride resumed.
The son apparently shared the anecdote as an illustration of his father’s gifts as an emotion-free crisis manager. But grace under pressure isn’t the image of the former Massachusetts governor that emerged with the retelling. Much in the same way John Edwards came to rue his $400 haircut, Seamus dogs Romney.
The story has at least four legs. “Saturday Night Live” recently featured Seamus in a skit; it’s a running joke on David Letterman’s late-night show; and a parked car with a big stuffed dog on top routinely shows up at the candidate’s rallies.
Romney insists Seamus loved his crate and appreciated fresh air, even at 60 miles per hour. That hasn’t appeased Dogs Against Romney, a group whose human founder, Scott Crider, is trying to get word out to the country’s 43 million dog owners. Dogs Against Romney, which had more than 1 million visitors to its website in its first 10 days, recently organized an anti-Romney protest at the Westminster dog show. It also awarded a congratulatory “woof” to Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton, who wrote in The Hill newspaper that a man who would insist his dog enjoyed such abuse is unfit to be president.
Although Romney says Seamus lived happily ever after on a farm, New York Observer blogger Hunter Walker reported that two of the Romney sons had said the dog ran away upon reaching Canada.
Bo the Everycanine
It was only a matter of time before the Obama re-election campaign saw a puppy in the manure. A few weeks ago, the chief strategist, David Axelrod, put a picture on Twitter of the president scratching the neck of his dog, Bo, who was sitting in the presidential limo. The caption: “How loving owners transport their dogs.”
Bo makes the perfect campaign surrogate. With a dog, there’s no risk of evoking the kind of complicated family tableau that appears when Gingrich’s daughters from his first marriage defend him against accusations the second wife has made about the third.
Bo’s Everycanine is better at humanizing a candidate than props such as Joe the Plumber, who ruined things as soon as he opened his mouth. The First Hound isn’t the least bit aloof and has no intellectual pretentions.
Seamus is another story. His travails resonate because, voters don’t know much about Romney. He comes to us largely in gauzy ads, protected by a cocoon of advisers whose greatest fear is that he might reveal himself. There are so many things that might humanize the candidate and that he won’t discuss: How being a Mormon shapes his worldview; how it felt to close businesses while at Bain Capital; what it was like for a Republican to govern a state as blue as Massachusetts; what he feels when a maid without health insurance is cleaning his hotel room.
As long as we’re left to guess about so much, it’s easy to fill the void about what’s inside the man with the story of the dog he left outside.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.