Spare Change News
When Mitt Romney fastened a carrier containing Seamus, the Romneys’ Irish setter, to the roof of the family car, he could not have predicted the firestorm of controversy that the event would ignite almost 30 years later. The story was first unearthed in an exhaustive 2007 Boston Globe profile of Mitt Romney by Neil Swidey. Swidey got the anecdote from a friend of the Romney family, and confirmed the details of the story with the Romneys’ son, Tagg. Swidey later wrote that as soon as he heard the story, he “knew it was a gem.”
The year was 1983 and the Romneys were headed from their Massachusetts home to Canada for a family vacation. The car was full of kids and luggage, and so, the decision was made to stow the dog on the roof. At some point during the ride, Seamus soiled his crate, and the exterior of the Romney’s car.
A then-36-year-old Mitt Romney calmly pulled into a gas station, hosed off dog and car alike, placed Seamus back into the carrier, and the Romneys continued on their way.
The story of the dog’s 12-hour trip atop the Romneys’ Chevy station wagon has become the stuff of legends. And Seamus, the star of the Romney vacation story, became an Internet sensation, deemed important enough to merit his own Wikipedia page, and several eponymous Twitter accounts. In an interview with Fox News in 2007—one of the first interviews to mention Seamus—Romney claimed that the kennel carrying the dog was “completely airtight,” and that Seamus “loved” riding on top of the family car.
The story has provided much comedic fodder for New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who has made a point of mentioning Seamus whenever she writes about Romney, because, according to Collins, “the Republican primary campaign has been an extremely long and depressing slog, and we need all the diversion we can get.”
When ABC News asked viewers to write-in questions for a recent Diane Sawyer interview with the presumed Republican presidential nominee and his wife Ann, the station was bombarded with inquiries about Seamus. Many of the questions came from members of the online group, “Dogs Against Romney” which counts over 50,000 Facebook followers, after the group’s human leader, Scott Crider, urged members to submit Seamus-related questions to ABC.
When Sawyer asked the Romneys about the dog’s now-infamous 12-hour trip atop the family car, a visibly uncomfortable Ann Romney insisted that Seamus “loved it” and implied that the dog’s diarrhea was not induced by terror, but rather by turkey that he had swiped from the kitchen counter. Ann’s comments served only to provoke a fresh round of Seamus-related headlines, “Mitt and Ann Romney’s ‘Dog on Roof’ Responses Tellingly Tone Deaf,” wrote the (New Jersey) Star-Ledger; “Mitt, Ann Romney Defend Putting Dog on Car Roof; Fallout Continues,” wrote the Chicago Tribune; “Mitt Romney Hounded Still by the Ghost of Seamus,” wrote The Washington Post. At the very least, the Romneys’ lack of remorse did little to contradict Mitt Romney’s often wooden and discomfited public persona.
The Obama campaign has taken full advantage of the late dog’s plight at the expense of Mitt Romney. Seamus was featured as a running gag during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. During his speech at the event, President Obama quipped, “Everyone is predicting a nasty election, and we have all agreed that families are off-limits. Dogs are apparently fair game.”
Chief campaign staffer David Axelrod tweeted a picture of the Obamas’ dog, Bo, lounging in the presidential limousine with a subtle dig at Romney: “How loving owners transport their pets,” read the caption. The Obama campaign has also released online advertisements aimed at dog lovers, (“Join Pet Lovers for Obama, Are You In?” reads one), and an “I bark for Barack” clothing and merchandise line featuring the first dog.
In a likely attempt to deflect attention from CrateGate, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom took to twitter to remind Americans that, as a child, President Obama once ate dog meat, a fact that was first revealed by Obama himself in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” It is worth mentioning that at the time, Obama was 10 years old and lived in Indonesia, a country where eating dog meat is not uncommon.
David Favre, a professor of property and animal law at Michigan State University, believes that Romney’s actions “Made sense in a logical sense, but not in an emotional one.”
“The car is full of kids, so you put the dog on the roof; at least he was taking the dog with him.” Favre told me.
Favre believes that the huge amount of interest the story has generated is the result of both Democrats taking advantage of a good story and genuine bewilderment at the way Romney treated his dog. “Clearly there are a number of people who are honestly upset. This is not a respectful use of a family member. On an emotional level, it’s ‘Oh my gosh, you did that to your dog?’ ”
While some may believe that Romney’s actions inflicted pain and suffering upon the dog, Favre does not believe that a prosecutor would file animal cruelty charges against Romney. I asked Favre if he thinks that CrateGate could influence the 2012 election, “Oh gosh, I hope not,” said Favre. “There are so many other things to consider when making a decision about him.”
I asked Jean Kazez, a philosopher and author of “Animal Kind: What We Owe to Animals,” to weigh in on the incident. Kazez responded via email that, “The issue is surely not the dog, and whether Romney has the right views about animals, it’s his lack of empathy … In an ideal world, we wouldn’t be talking about his dog or his car elevator, but about his positions on health care, taxation, immigration, women’s reproductive rights, etc.”
John Walsh, Chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, echoed this sentiment: “I think anybody would say, turning the economy around, getting clean air, good schools… are clearly bigger priorities,” said Walsh.
However, Walsh understands why the story has taken on a life of its own. “I think there is a genuine interest that is based on the fact that when most people first hear it they think that it’s some goofy thing that the Democrats made up. I think that it’s so jarring to people … People love dogs, right? I mean people love dogs more than they love people! And certainly for most people who have dogs, they’re like part of your family,” said Walsh. “You know, I’ve got a dog, and if I tried to put him on the roof of my car, my son and my wife would hose me down,” he continued.
Walsh believes that voters, and particularly swing voters, often weigh Presidential candidates’ personal qualities carefully before choosing which candidate to vote for, “All of this stuff that’s been written over the years about likeability…They used to say that people would rather go have a beer with George Bush,” said Walsh.
“Real voters will be thinking: I can’t anticipate every single thing that’s going to happen over the next four years with this person,” he continued, “I have to try to get a sense of what kind of person they are, what kind of decision maker they are, and sometimes [voters] use interesting stand-ins for you know, ‘I’m going to ask you a policy question and you’re going to give me your scripted policy answer.’”
Calls and emails to the Massachusetts Republican Party for comment were not returned.
I surveyed some dog owners at Boston-area dog parks to get their reactions to the story. I wanted to know, could the fact that Romney did this to his dog 30 years ago sway ordinary voters, particularly those who own dogs?
“I feel like owners know their dogs best,” said Marie, a Suffolk Law student chaperoning her shy Pomeranian, Pierre, at a Boston dog park. Marie emphasized several times that she is “not a Republican” but she was willing to give Romney the benefit of the doubt, “As long as the dog was not inhumanely treated…. If Seamus liked the roof of the car, he liked the roof of the car, and the Romneys, if they wanted to oblige him, they obliged him. I don’t think he should have been on there for that long, but if he liked it….”
Some dog owners seem more skeptical of the Romney’s claim that Seamus ‘loved’ being perched atop the family station wagon, “Well he says his dog loved it, but before putting your dog on the roof and driving at whatever miles an hour, how do you know that your dog would love it? It seems kind of risky to me,” said Michael Selbst, who was socializing his dog in a South End park. “It tells me he wasn’t particularly sensitive to his dog’s needs. Does that mean he’d be a bad president? I doubt it,” Selbst told me.
Dave Weinberg, owner of Odie, a gentle Labrador surrounded by a herd of yapping miniature dogs, said: “It’s a little odd, to be honest with you. But I don’t think that it would affect my vote. I wouldn’t do that to my dog, but his was years and years ago…”
He doesn’t find that Ann Romney’s assertion that turkey caused Seamus’ illness is implausible. “You know what it is, it’s because of the fatty part of the meat. That’s what does it; the lower part of the intestines can’t process lipids. So if the turkey was fatty, that could have done it for sure.” said Weinberg.
One dog owner at a Southwest Corridor dog park, who asked that I not identify her by name, said that although she would never put her dog on the roof if her car that, “Romney is my guy. I just love him.” She said that she didn’t know much about the story, but had made up her mind; the story of Seamus’ trip atop the Romney’s car would not impact her vote on Election Day.
Andrew and Rebecca, a South End couple strolling with their dog, Roz, didn’t let Romney off the hook so easily, “I just think that treating an animal, especially an animal that is a pet, that is sort of a family member, at least for us, shows—” began Andrew. Rebecca finishes his sentence, “True Colors. It’s a big turn-off. I think it shows your true personality.”
I ask the couple if this would impact their votes, or if they had already made up their mind. “I am probably more of a swing voter than she is. She wouldn’t have voted for him anyway” said Andrew.
A Massachusetts member of the Dogs Against Romney Facebook group, Bianca Strzelczyk, told me that she didn’t join the group for political reasons, “I don’t put my political views out there, and I never have. I’ve never felt comfortable about that. ” I ask Stzelczyk if she thinks that Dogs Against Romney is a partisan group. “I definitely think it’s both sides…I don’t think that it’s a political issue, I think that it’s an animal rights issue” said Strzelczyk.
Stzelczyk is the owner of two Labrador mixes that she rescued from a shelter. “When I rescued my dogs I definitely developed an even stronger feeling towards animal rights. It hit home a little more, just because I was able to put my dogs in that situation,” said Strzelczyk, “Would I ever put my dogs on the top of the roof? No. I could never even fathom thinking of it. When I heard of it, I was like someone did what? How is that even possible?”
I ask Strzelczyk if she thinks that perhaps attitudes towards pets have changed since the early 1980’s when the event in question took place. Strzelczyk concedes that is probably the case, but that, “Even if it was acceptable, that doesn’t mean he should have done it.”
LEANNE O’BRIEN is a Spare Change News writer and editor.