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Billy Kimball Headshot

Barack Obama Insults Dog, Jumps Shark

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Reasonable people may differ as to when exactly the bloom came off the rose for Barack Obama. Of course, hopes fulfilled inevitably bring anti-climax, so it's possible that much of the general public is now predisposed to find fault even where none exists. But surely few of his supporters, and I count myself among them, will deny that there has been much to deplore about Mr. Obama's post-election conduct.

For some, the most dispiriting event was the unwelcome reappearance of the Clintonistas, returning through the revolving door that separates the public and private sectors for a last hurrah, a stale Hollywood plot line instead of the "Change from Beyond-the-Beltway" we were promised.

For others, Obama jumped the shark when he continued to send solicitous e-mail (still signed "Barack"), raising money almost as if by reflex, weeks after the election. (Allow me a quick "reply all." Barack, if I may call you that, people don't really want to be on a first name basis with their president even if they say they do. Being a young president does not mean you have to behave like a childish one.)

But, for me, the honeymoon ended when Barack Obama insulted my dog on national television.

The "Kimball Corollary" to "O'Neill's Law," which states that "All politics are local," is that "All politics is personal." (I prefer to regard "politics" as singular rather than plural - let the debate begin.) Last week, during an interview with Barbara Walters (another deplorable move), President-Elect Obama made cruel fun of my dog, gratuitously and without any sort of provocation. That's when the sad fact I have somehow known all along really hit home: the Barack Obama who will sit in the Oval Office is not and cannot be the same man who ran for that office.

The exchange in question took place as Ms. Walters attempted to sell the First Couple on her own preferred breed, a Havanese.

Obama: "Cha Cha?"

Barbara: "It's short for Cha Cha Cha."
O: "What is a Havanese?"
B: "It's like a little terrier and they're non-allergenic and they're the sweetest dogs.."
O: [Face suddenly changes.] "It's like a little yappy dog?"
Michelle: "Don't criticize."
O: "It, like, sits in your lap and things?"
M: "It's a cute dog."
O: "It sounds kinda like a girly dog."
M: "We're girls. We have a houseful of girls."
O [with hand gestures]: "We're going to have a big rambunctious dog, of some sort."

Like Barbara Walters (which is something we are going to have to come to terms with at a later time), my wife and I have a Havanese. Manuel has all the classic dog virtues: he is loyal and affectionate, brave and (somewhat) obedient, and, if anyone tried to take him away from me, they'd have to pry him from my cold, dead hands.

The creation myths of the Havanese breed are various. As their name suggests, they are Cuban, but whether they came there first as the playthings of Spanish aristocrats or to bring joy to the laboring masses as circus dogs is debated. Some say they made landfall in the New World having crossed as shipboard sentinels watching for men overboard, a legacy that would make them unusually beloved among the non-swimming sailors of the day. Our dog still gives the alarm when anyone in our neighborhood dives into a pool or when, at the beach, anyone in his quarter-mile patrol zone is foolish enough to brave the waves.

By immemorial custom, the First Family must be dog owners just as they must be churchgoers and sportsfans. For Barack Obama to promise his daughters a new puppy if he were elected was a no-brainer, like promising them their own airplane or a new house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Once Wolf Blitzer called it on Election Night, the Obama family was getting a dog whether the kids wanted one or not.

The semiotics of dog ownership, for presidents and paupers alike, are equally well established. By saying that he wanted a "big, rambunctious dog," Obama was trying to don the mantle of the "guy's guy." Big rambunctious dogs, through their genetic link to working and hunting breeds, establish one's bona fides with the masses. Those toy breeds who don't have to work for living probably belong to people who don't either - or so the conventional wisdom would have it.

Of course, big, rambunctious dogs also imply that the owner is not gay which is important for Obama as he considers a politically radioactive repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" rules which stuck like flypaper to Bill Clinton during his first year in office. For what it's worth, Barack Obama has risen very high in American life without, as far as I can tell, anyone suggesting he's gay. I really think ghettoizing an entire species of dog is unnecessary overcompensation in that regard.

(By the way, the days of swishy interior decorators with a Teacup Maltese under their arm seem to me to have gone with the wind. Check out the Big Dog Run in Washington Square Park if you don't believe me.)

To give Michelle Obama credit, she attempted to give her husband some cover by suggesting that a "girly dog" would be entirely appropriate for "a houseful of girls." It was a nice try, but clearly Mr. Obama meant "girly" in the pejorative sense, not as an adjective denoting "nice for girls," but rather to suggest a dog that lives in conflict with its own manly nature or the manly nature of dogs in general.

The focus group that sits inside Barack Obama's head has mostly served him well. It has enabled him to take terrifying political risks with that icy cool that we all love and fear. But in this case, his inner focus group has steered him wrong. Making distinctions about dogs based on breed is nothing less than a form of canine racism and exactly the sort of thing many of us had hoped we were leaving behind on Nov. 3. Is a Newfoundland who tongue kisses his male owner and hides under the bed during a thunderstorm any less girly than a Chihuahua who barks at trucks and has the guts to try to mate with a throw pillow more than twice his size?

And, after setting a fine example by declaring that he would adopt (or "rescue" in current parlance) a dog rather than buy one, Obama is acting irresponsibly by getting a dog much larger than is practical for people in his zip code who don't have a Rose Garden and South Lawn for it to run around on. Inevitably, one wonders who is going to clean up after the big, rambunctious dog leaves his big, rambunctious bowel movements scattered about the White House grounds? I suspect our new Commander-in-Chief will be commanding someone to do that job for him.

In the four years since he came into our lives, Manuel has watched over our baby, protected our family, comforted us in times of trouble, given us unconditional love, forgiven us our occasional negligence, entertained us, encouraged us to exercise, and provided us with a middle class tax cut. If President-Elect Obama can say all that at the end of his first term, then I'll be interested to hear his opinion about my dog. But until then, Mr. President-Elect, how about a little less time disparaging dogs because of their breed and a little more time explaining why you voted for that $700 billion bail-out that didn't work?

Thanks in advance.