Republican or Democrat. Incumbent or challenger. Controversial or comfortable. Dogs or cats. There is one thing most U.S. presidents have in common: a pet or two warming up the White House.
Those pets — from George Washington’s stallions and hound dogs through George W. Bush’s dogs Spot and Barney — are given their proper tribute at the Presidential Pet Museum in Lothian, Md.
The museum, open by appointment and not connected to the U.S. government, is a labor of love for Claire McLean. Mrs. McLean, a breeder of bouvier des Flandres dogs, has been collecting presidential pet memorabilia since the mid-1980s, when she was called upon to groom Lucky, a bouvier that belonged to President Reagan and his wife, Nancy.
Mrs. McLean left the White House with some spare clippings of Lucky’s fur, which she mounted on a portrait of the dog. Soon after, she began amassing all things presidential.
The collection, which Mrs. McLean formally opened as a museum in 1999, is nearly bursting out of a small outbuilding on her Anne Arundel County property.
“I’ve always been a big fan of the presidents,” Mrs. McLean says. “So I started to think, all the presidents have museums and libraries. But the one unifying thing that connects them all is pets. More than 400 animals have gone through the White House. Having pets absolutely humanizes our presidents. We get a warmer feeling about them knowing that there is a pet in the White House.”
The Presidential Pet Museum will bring a smile to the face of both animal-loving children and adult history aficionados. The two-room museum is stocked with artifacts, history and kitschy collectibles.
There are displays honoring recent presidents and their pets. The Reagans and Lucky get a lot of space, as does Millie, the senior George Bush’s spaniel and mother of the current president’s pet Spot.
“Spot is the only second-generation pet born at the White House,” Mrs. McLean says.
Mrs. McLean has a wealth of knowledge on the subject, with tidbits about pets from Teddy Roosevelt’s wild animals to Caroline Kennedy’s pony, Macaroni, to the Clintons’ cat, Socks.
“Socks was one of our country’s most popular pets,” Mrs. McLean says, showing off a display with Socks books and pictures.
Other pets that were popular with the public include Franklin Roosevelt’s Scottish terrier, Fala, who almost always was at his side, and Old Ike, the tobacco-chewing sheep who grazed on the lawn during Woodrow Wilson’s administration, Mrs. McLean says. Laddy, the Airedale who lived at the White House with Warren Harding, “was more popular than the president,” Mrs. McLean adds.
Visitors to the museum can watch a Discovery Channel documentary about presidential dogs. The movie devotes a large portion to Richard Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, in which he talked about his family’s pet cocker spaniel, Checkers. Mrs. McLean points out that Checkers never actually lived in the White House but was the Nixon family dog while Mr. Nixon was vice president.
“The ‘Checkers’ speech saved his career,” Mrs. McLean says.
Mixed in among the hundreds of presidential-themed artifacts for viewing are many items for sale. Among them are a line of Presidential Petables, small stuffed animals made in the likenesses of the current White House pets.
Mrs. McLean hopes one day to move the museum, which survives solely on donations, to a downtown location or to find corporate sponsorship.
Meanwhile, she predicts that as the 2004 presidential election draws closer, we will see more of the Bushes’ pets — which also include Willie the cat — as well as the pets belonging to the Democratic nominee.
“Cats are more popular with the American people,” she says, “but the presidents of the United States have had more dogs. Pets really give the presidents a humanitarian side. We can see that our great commander in chief takes care of animals, too. Republican or Democrat, all the pets are lovable.”
WHEN YOU GO:
LOCATION: The Presidential Pet Museum is at 1102 Wrighton Road in Lothian, Md.
Directions: Take the Beltway to Exit 11A (Route 4/Upper Marlboro). Take Route 4 10 miles. Make a right onto Plummer Lane, then a left onto Wrighton.
Hours: Open by appointment 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Parking: On site
Note: The museum is a quick trip through presidential history as discovered by learning about White House pets. Adults and youngsters will enjoy visiting. The museum is free but accepts donations to help in its operation. Many items are for sale.
More information: 410/741-0899 or www.presidentialpetmuseum.com.