James K. Polk and Donald Trump: Presidents Without Pets by Ellen Connally

Impeachment could bring pets back to the White House; VP Mike Pence with family and some of his menagerie. (From Pence’s Twitter feed)

It’s a long stretch to find a connection between President James K. Polk, the 11th President of the United States (1845-1849) and Donald Trump.

Polk, who rose to the rank of colonel in the Tennessee state militia, was a former congressman who served as chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. While in Congress he was elected Speaker of the House, making him the only person to hold that office and move on to the presidency. A Jacksonian Democrat who served as governor of Tennessee from 1839-1841, he is a far cry from Trump, who was deferred from military service because of bone spurs and never held political office before coming to the White House.

In terms of similarities, other than the fact they both have one syllable last names, there’s not much commonality. But alas, there are two points of common ground, both of which fall in the realm of the animal kingdom. Polk was the first “dark horse” candidate for president and Trump is the most recent — no one expected either of them to win. But more importantly, Polk and Trump are the only two presidents — according to Wikipedia — who had no pets.

Going back to George Washington, who did not live in the White House, presidents and their families have a long list of canines, felines, equines and avian friends. When the White House was occupied by the families of Abraham Lincoln, T.R. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, there were young children who harbored large menageries of dogs, cats, rabbits, ponies, goats and horses.

The most recent Presidential pets were the Portuguese Water Dogs — Bo and Sunny — that belonged to the Obamas.

George and Laura Bush had several dogs and cats, but the most famous dogs were Barney and Miss Beazley — both Scottish Terriers. Miss Beazley became particularly well known when she made her own White House Christmas video in 2005. The Clintons had Buddy the chocolate Labrador retriever and Socks the cat.


In the 19th century, both James Madison and Andrew Jackson had parrots. Andrew Johnson, while having no specific pet, is said to have fed white mice that he found in the White House. Ulysses Grant was known as a butcher on the battlefield but had a great affection for horses. Known as one of the best riders in the Army, he was particularly harsh on any of the men that served under him in the Army if they abused their horses.

One of the most famous presidential pets was Franklin Roosevelt’s Scottish Terrier. Fala is the only pet depicted on a presidential memorial and is buried next to the president at Hyde Park, New York. In 1942, when FDR was running for an unprecedented 4th term, Fala became the subject of a famous campaign speech. Republican critics of the President accused him of accidently leaving Fala behind in the Aleutian Islands and sending a Navy destroyer back to pick the dog up — all at taxpayers’ expense. It was a 1940s example of fake news. But FDR used the story to belittle his critics by saying that the Republicans had attacked him and his wife but now they had attacked his poor dog — something he could not handle.

In 1952, future president Richard Nixon was the Republican vice-presidential candidate. A man of humble means, Nixon received financial support from backers who helped defray personal and living expenses during the campaign. While the contributions were not illegal at the time, the ever-sanctimonious Nixon had often accused others of corruption. Now he was on the other end of the stick.

In what would become a first for the newly emerging medium of television, Nixon took to the airways to defend the payments and attempt to defuse the growing scandal. The speech would have been long forgotten but for the fact that Nixon, who probably should have received an Oscar for his dramatic performance, pointed out that in addition to the money, he had received a Cocker Spaniel puppy which his girls named Checkers. He was going to keep the dog no matter what the consequences. The term “Checkers Speech” has come to be used for any emotional speech given by a politician.

Pet ownership can be positive for politicians but can also have a down side.

In 1983, Mitt Romney decided to take a leisurely drive from Massachusetts to Ontario — a journey of some 650 miles that would have taken about 12 hours. In addition to his family he brought along his Irish Setter Seamus. Rather than letting Seamus ride in the Chevy Caprice station wagon with the rest of the family, Romney put the dog in a cage and then put the cage on the top of the car — a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his political career. Unforgiving pet owners and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, whose zeal for animals rivals the NRA’s support of guns) have never forgotten Romney’s insensitive treatment of Seamus. The incident was a major topic of discussion during both the 2008 and 2013 presidential campaigns and will likely resurface during his current run for the Senate. Animal lovers don’t forget.

A friend of mine, who is a member of a local city council, says that a public body can pass a billion-dollar budget and not a single citizen will show up. But consider legislation about culling the deer population or limiting the number of dogs or cats in any fashion and the council chambers will be filled to the rafters with citizens carrying pitchforks and recall petitions.

Having a pet — or the lack thereof — tells you something about a person. My grandmother always warned me to never trust a man that didn’t like dogs, something that I have found to be true on numerous occasions.

A recent study found that pet owners exhibited greater self-esteem, were more physical fit, less lonely, more conscientious, more socially outgoing and had healthier relationships. People with narcissistic personalities are less likely to enjoy positive relations with pets.

And speaking of narcissists, the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has no cat, dog, horse or bird — although one wonders if his friend Putin has hidden a few bugs in the walls. But “The Donald” is known to have had a few relationships with cotton-tailed bunnies and pussy — cats. Do those count as pets?  Maybe Stormy knows.

Polk biographer Charles G. Sellers describes him as a man with few interests outside of politics. Polk “… had no aspirations, intellectual interests, recreation or friendships.” Sounds like another similarity to Trump.

Polk was a one-term president. Come November 2020, hopefully Polk and Trump will have one more thing in common.

Trump family prefers their animals to not be living.

Personal Post Script: This past week one of my two dogs passed away. Within an hour of posting his death on Facebook, I had 33 responses. In the last 5 days I have had close to 200 responses and almost 100 people who have taken the time to write a personal condolence. When my sister died a year ago and my mother died 4 years ago, I got far fewer responses. Maybe all my Facebook friends are pet lovers. Haven’t heard from Donald Trump yet.

C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and treasurer of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.

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