The President's Dog

March 28, 2017 Our debut episode brings you the story of a good boy. A very good boy. Laddie Boy, the First Dog of the United States. A wonderful, charming terrier whom Americans loved even more than they hated his owner: Warren G. Harding, one of the worst presidents the country has ever known.

Read a full transcript of this episode on the Something True website.

Follow Something true on Twitter @atruepodcast. (Or just follow Duncan and Alex.)

Music on this week’s episode:
The U.S. Marine Corps Band – Stars and Stripes Forever*
Jason Shaw – Jenny’s Theme*
Latché Swing – Rythme Gitan*
U.S. Army Band – America the Beautiful*
Dave Depper – Heartstrings*

*modified for the podcast.

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It’s 1921. America, recovering from a bloody victory in the First World War, yearns to move on. Warren G. Harding has been elected the 29th President of the United States on a promise to restore the country to normalcy. The task ahead is immense. The first meeting of Harding’s Cabinet is just getting down to business when there is a knock on the door. It’s an aide, bringing the President a dog.

‘LOOK AT THIS DOG,’ exclaims Warren Harding of the fluffy, seven-month-old Airedale Terrier. ‘THIS IS AN AMAZING DOG.’ Harding immediately cancels the meeting to go and run around with the puppy. Now, of course, being the President, he can’t really make a habit of leaving Cabinet meetings to play with a dog. So he decides, let’s make a little chair for this dog so he can sit at the Cabinet table too. We’ll make him an honorary Cabinet Secretary. And if you’re someone like, say, the Secretary of the Treasury, you’ve got to be thinking: what is this shit?

You’re listening to Something True – stories from the footnotes of history. Written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Ashby. This week’s episode: The President’s Dog.

As long as the United States has had presidents, those presidents have had pets. Since George Washington and his Staghounds, no president has lacked for animal companionship, with the possible exception of old sad sack 17th president Andrew Johnson. The closest Johnson got to having pets were some white mice scurrying around in his bedroom, which he hung out with and fed while he was being impeached by Congress. And he fed them plain flour. Not even something they would want.

In a sense, there was nothing especially notable about Laddie Boy. But the times in which he lived were crying out to anoint a celebrity dog. It was the Jazz Age. The aftermath of the Great War. And Warren Harding, America’s Jazz President, led a nation starved for fun stories of dogs rather than tales of trench warfare.

Laddie Boy was a gift from an Ohio friend of the President’s. Harding fell head over heels for this White House dog. He wanted to share him with the country, and, a bit more cannily, with the press.

Reports of the presidential puppy’s escapades headlined national newspapers. Laddie Boy Chases Cat Up Tree! Laddie Boy Fetches Morning Papers for Jazz Prez!

Nothing was too silly. The New York Times wanted a photo op with Laddie Boy? They got it. A press pass to Laddie Boy’s birthday party? They’re on the list. An exclusive interview with Laddie Boy? Of course! But who should write the responses on Laddie Boy’s behalf? Probably a junior staffer? ‘No!’ said Harding, ‘That’s a job only for the President of the United States.’

Harding was smart. He’d worked in the newspaper business. Like many an American, he’d got his start in a newsroom when he was ten years old, at the paper owned by his dad. Harding knew how powerful the media was, and how beneficial—or destructive—their attentions could be to a presidency. He did everything he could to court the press—and a First Dog of the United States? Reporters would eat that up.

Yes, Harding was cynical, but he did love Laddie Boy, with intense passion, and assumed that everyone else would too. ‘I WANT A THOUSAND BRONZE SCULPTURES MADE OF THIS DOG,’ he ordered his staff one day.

‘Uh… should it include,’ they asked, ‘you know, the penis?’

‘YES, YOU INCLUDE THE PENIS,’ bellowed Harding.

Harding put Laddie Boy front and centre whenever possible. The dog led a grand Humane Society parade championing animal welfare. And one year after the battle for women’s suffrage delivered the right for women to vote, Harding met three hundred delegates of the National Council of Catholic Women in his office to shake their hands. Laddie Boy was there, too. As if to say, ‘You are all women of astonishing dedication and resolve. Thank you for everything you’ve done for your country. I am so proud to shake your hand and finally call you, in every legal sense, my equal. Your hand will also be shaken by a dog.’

Laddie Boy was hot shit. Men and women across America vied for the honour of making their own dog have sex with him. Laddie Boy had a social calendar. Laddie Boy hosted children’s parties. Laddie Boy’s birthday was celebrated with a cake and a letter from his absentee father, which read, paraphrasing: ‘Laddie Boy, you are a good dog, and I am so proud of you. Sincerely, your dog father.’

This is the power of Laddie’s reputation. He had a brother, Dickie Boy, a Denver farm dog. One day Dickie Boy killed seventy chickens from a neighbouring property on some kind of rampage. Dickie’s owner was taken to court, where he asked the judge, ‘Come on, you don’t think that a dog with a brother in the White House would stoop to chasing a few chickens, do ya?’

‘No,’ said the judge. ‘No, that doesn’t seem possible at all.’

America loved Laddie Boy. That was very clear. But inside the Harding administration, feeling towards the dog was more complicated.

Harding’s Secretary of War, for instance, John Weeks, was not exactly thrilled that the news of his accomplishments were being drowned out by literally anything that a dog did. While it sat next to him in the Cabinet room, licking itself.

But there were many, many others in the administration who loved it, because one more front page story about Laddie Boy was one fewer about the deeply criminal shit they were getting up to.

When Harding became president, he mostly appointed friends and campaign donors to Cabinet and other high-ranking positions. It was an ethical roll of the dice that, more often than not, turned out catastrophically.

Harding made a friend from his Senate days, Albert Fall, the Secretary of the Interior. Fall was jailed after taking extravagant bribes from private drilling concerns for access to Navy petroleum reserves. At the same time, there was Albert Lasker, a major donor to Harding’s campaign, whom Harding made Chairman of the United States Shipping Board. When the private sector expressed interest in buying some of the government’s valuable cargo ships, Lasker told them to help themselves and just pay whatever they felt was fair.

And then there was Harry Daughtery, Harding’s campaign manager, who was made Attorney General, and who, when he was given the task of enforcing prohibition, just laughed and laughed and laughed.

Harding had stuck his neck out for all them, a trust that they almost immediately and pathologically abused. For the most part, Harding didn’t even know what they had been up to, and was truly pissed when he found out. He thought of himself of a loyal person, and his friends had repaid that loyalty by taking whatever they could for themselves and hanging him out to dry. Harding was the one blamed when these scandals came to light. And the press that Harding had coaxed so deliberately to his side turned on the administration, swiftly destroying it.

Now nobody trusted Warren Harding. And Warren Harding trusted nobody. Except, of course, Laddie Boy. Everyone still loved Laddie Boy. So, to explain how he was feeling, Harding took to writing to magazines and newspapers as the beloved dog. A dog who happened to express a very dim view of so-called friends who exploited power for personal gain.

‘I am only 18 months old and I do not know many other dogs. I have heard the Chief talk about some of his dog friends, and I know that he chooses to be known as the friend of good dogs,’ went one letter published in the magazine Nation. ‘Sometimes the Chief acts as though he would like to sit down when he and I can be alone and I can look at him with sympathetic eyes and he fixes his gaze on me in a grateful way, as much as to say, “Well, Laddie Boy, you and I are real friends, and we will never cheat each other.”

‘When the Chief looks at me this way, I know that he feels that I will never find fault with him, no matter what he does, and that I will never be ungrateful nor unfaithful.’

One year later, Harding was dead.

The Commander-in-chief expired on a visit to California, likely from some sort of heart failure. Laddie Boy had not accompanied Harding on the trip, and back home, he howled for days.

The First Lady, Florence Harding, prepared to vacate the White House for Harding’s successor, Vice President Calvin Coolidge. Florence gave Laddie Boy to a Secret Service agent, Harry Barker, because he had been the agent assigned to her and his name was Barker, and the First Lady liked to theme her bequeathments.

Barker was transferred, and he, his family, and Laddie Boy relocated to a quiet, Newtownville, Massachusetts residence, many miles from the nation’s capital. Back there, Laddie Boy had had a seat at the table of the most powerful men in the world. Newspapers attended his birthday parties. Charities tried to book him for events. Magazines bid for the right to publish his correspondence. Then it was all over.

While nearly everything in Newtonville was different, Harry Barker and Laddie Boy lived next door to a familiar face: John Weeks, Harding’s old Secretary of War, and no fan of Laddie Boy’s. Without Harding in the picture, Weeks was no longer under any obligation to find Laddie Boy adorable, and frequently screamed at him to stay the hell off his lawn. That was life in Newtownville. There was no special treatment. No reporters. No fan club. Laddie Boy was just another nobody, and he got to live out the rest of his days like a regular mutt.

That was Something True, a podcast on the Idle Thumbs network, written by Duncan Fyfe and read by Alex Ashby, with artwork by Ray Chen. Music credits can be found in the description and on our website at Follow us on twitter @atruepodcast, and join us again for the next episode: Class Clowns.