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Famous Dogs and Their Presidents

Author makes no bones about the canine's important place in the White House

President Clinton is enjoying some of the best popularity ratings of his entire presidential career.

The economy is good, people are making money in the market, and even a series of developments from his scandal closet over the summer didn't stick.

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But just in case things do begin to tank, and he finds himself in the doghouse, one would-be adviser says he can teach an old political dog a new trick.

In the just released "First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Best Friends" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) author Roy Rowan makes no bones about how helpful a dog would be.

"Dogs have been used in so many ways by presidents," Mr. Rowan explains.

Through the years, he points out, they have fended off bad news, hostile Congresses, even feral reporters. "We've seen Nixon use his dog Checkers to cover his $18,000 slush fund," Rowan says of the famous "Checkers Speech."

That episode alone raises the question: Why wouldn't a skilled politician such as Bill Clinton have a dog? "Even if it's a mutt," Rowan argues, like "Teddy Roosevelt's plucky hunter Skip who was found wandering aimlessly around the Grand Canyon." A dogless White House he continues "is not just a loss to the current occupant, it's a loss to the entire country. It's part of the American lore."

With the aid of research from co-author Brooke Janis, Rowan walks the reader through American history, intertwining anecdotes and dozens of photographs with hard-to-stop-reading stories that track the canine legacy on America's democracy.

Gen. George Washington, for example, in the process of ridding America of British redcoats, once spied a well-bred, but well-worn and quite hungry hound wandering into camp one day. Closer examination revealed the dog belonged to British commander Gen. Richard Howe. According to Rowan, "Washington understood the bond between a man and his dog, and had the dog returned under a white flag."

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As president, Washington had 36 dogs at his Mount Vernon estate. He's known not only as the father of this country, he's the founding breeder of the American foxhound.

In White House shenanigans, dogs win more points than their owners do. Like the time Winks, Franklin D. Roosevelt's Llewellin setter, slipped into the White House cafeteria, hopped on the table, and wolfed down 18 plates of bacon and eggs.

Perhaps the top dog of all first pets was Fala, FDR's beloved Scottish terrier. Now memorialized in bronze next to his master at the FDR memorial in Washington, the little hound in his heyday got more fan mail than the president.

Fala was once left behind in the Aleutian Islands. FDR sent a US destroyer back to fetch him at a cost of $15,000. When Republican congressmen howled in dismay, FDR took to the airwaves and in one of his most famous fireside radio chats, lamented that Congress had attacked him, his wife, and now, his poor dog.

Mr. Clinton's idol, John F. Kennedy, was given a fluffy white dog named Pushinka, the daughter of a Russian space dog owned by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. To help ease post-Cuban-missile-crisis tensions, the Secret Service thoroughly combed her for any variety of "bugs." Kennedy later called her first litter "pup-niks."

Through the years, only five US presidents have not had dogs - a fact that may foster mistrust toward a chief executive of a country that is home to 54 million dogs.

Rowan picked his bone in person with Clinton in August at the beginning of the presidential vacation. He handed him a copy inscribed with the following message: "With appreciation for your dogged determination in serving us all well, and with best wishes for your future success."

White House sources have confirmed the president reviewed the quick read but could not report any reaction.

The closest the president has come to getting a dog since his arrival in Washington came one night at a charity auction at Chelsea's former high school, Sidwell Friends. Socks seemed sure to share presidential pet duties after an offer of $3,500 for a golden retriever. But another bid that night went $200 higher.

Dogless now, Clinton is no stranger to the affections afforded by a canine. Bill and King were to Hope, Ark., in the late 1950s what Timmy and Lassie were to American TV audiences in the early 1960s. A loyal and intelligent German shepherd, King rarely left his master's side, a silent sentinel against danger for the future president.

"He was always playing football with us and knocking us down. He was almost big enough to ride," says David Leopoulos, one of Clinton's boyhood friends.

Asked what sort of dog the president should pick if he wanted one, Mr. Leopoulos says, "A democratic kind of dog ... a mutt. That's if you go with the stereotype."

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