Did you know there’s a Presidential Pet Museum? Or that protesters in India burned effigies of George W. Bush because they felt naming his cat India was “an insult” to their country?
Or that one Republican congressman was so incensed by Socks, the Clintons’ cat, that he wrote a letter demanding an accounting for how much taxpayer money was spent on postage to write back to Socks’ fans?
I did a little delving into the world of presidential pets after writing about president-elect Joe Biden’s plans to bring a cat to the White House along with his two dogs.
And man, it’s a weird world. To start with, the Presidential Pet Museum’s Andrew Hager told the New York Times he thinks Biden’s choice is subtly political.
“Maybe this is symbolic of Biden’s oft-repeated desire to unify the country,” he said. “I know that that’s kind of trite, but I’m very curious to see how this goes.”
That didn’t work out so well for Bill Clinton, whose cat Socks famously feuded with Buddy, the awesomely-named Labrador who was the Clinton family’s second pet.
“You know, I did better with the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Israelis than I’ve done with Socks and Buddy,” Clinton lamented during the final days of his presidency in 2001, just before his successor, George W. Bush, was about to take office.
Socks remains popular to this day, with a dedicated group of “Socks enthusiasts” who not only love the former White House cat, they raised more than $33,000 to finish and release a cancelled Super Nintendo game called Socks The Cat Rocks The Hill.
Yeah, Socks had his own game. It was apparently anticipated enough to lead to early reviews and previews in magazines at the time, and featured Socks repeatedly saving the world from nuclear apocalypse at the hands of — and I’m not joking here — “Arab terrorist felines,” bulldogs in Army helmets, and Ross Perot.
According to a preview in 1993’s Playthings magazine:
“In his video game debut, entitled ‘Socks Rocks the House,’ he will venture from the basement of the White House to the Oval Office to create havoc with the President’s allergies. Along the way, while the cat’s at play, Socks must push Millie the dog out the front door as well as avoid Arab terrorist felines.”
There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I value my life so I’ll restrain myself. In any case, the game was finally released in 2018, a quarter century after it was supposed to land on store shelves.
India, the Bush family’s cat, was often overshadowed by the dogs. While First Lady Laura Bush was often photographed holding India, the president himself was frequently seen walking his pups on the White House grounds.
In July of 2004, a crowd in Kerala, India, gathered and condemned Bush for his choice of name for the cat, a wire service report noted at the time:
Members of the citizens group Prathikarana Vedi assembled before the Kerala assembly saying that Bush calling his cat India was an insult to the country.
“This is a disgrace to our great country and this has come from none other than US President George W. Bush,” said M.A. Latheef, president of the group. “He should make amends.”
It turns out India wasn’t named after the country: Bush’s daughter, Barbara, named the American shorthair after Ruben “El Indio” Sierra, a rightfielder who spent his early career with Bush’s Texas Rangers.
Perhaps the greatest cat-lover among presidents was Abraham Lincoln, who once vented that one of his cats, Dixie, “is smarter than my whole cabinet! And furthermore, she doesn’t talk back!”
Lincoln “doted on his cats,” and to the horror and amusement of guests at a formal White House dinner the president fed Tabby, his other cat, from the table. When his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, expressed her embarrassment, the president shrugged it off.
“If the gold fork was good enough for [former President James] Buchanan,” Lincoln quipped, “I think it is good enough for Tabby.”
Lincoln was known for doing his thinking with a cat in his lap, sitting silent while petting Tabby or Dixie and drifting into deep thought. U.S. Navy Admiral David Dixon Porter later wrote of watching Lincoln caring for a trio of stray kittens, which the president later left in the care of US military officers, along with specific orders to treat them well and make sure they were well-fed.
“It well illustrated the kindness of the man’s disposition,” Porter wrote, “and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature.”