It was 1921. America, recovering from a bloody victory in the first world war, yearned to move on. Warren G Harding had been elected the 29th president of the United States on a promise to restore the country to normalcy. The task ahead was immense, and the first meeting of Harding’s cabinet was just getting down to business when there was a knock on the door. It was an aide, bringing the president a dog.
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“Look at this dog,” exclaimed Harding, holding the fluffy, seven-month-old Airedale terrier. “This is an amazing dog!” Then he immediately cancelled the meeting to go and run around with the puppy, whom he named Laddie Boy. Of course, being the president, Harding couldn’t really make a habit of leaving cabinet meetings to play with a dog. So he had a little chair made for Laddie Boy, so he could sit at the cabinet table too.
As long as the US has had presidents, those presidents have had pets. Since George Washington and his staghounds, no supreme executive has lacked for animal companionship, with the possible exception of old sad-sack number 17, President Andrew Johnson. The closest Johnson got to having pets were some white mice scurrying around in his bedroom, which he hung out with and fed while he was being impeached by Congress. And even then, he only gave them plain flour.
In a sense, there was nothing especially notable about Laddie Boy. But the times in which he lived were crying out to anoint a celebrity dog. It was the Jazz Age. The aftermath of the Great War. And Harding, America’s Jazz President, led a nation starved for fun stories of plucky dogs rather than tales of trench warfare.
Laddie Boy was a gift from a friend of the president’s back home in Ohio, and Harding fell head over heels. He wanted to share him with the country — and with the press. Reports of the presidential puppy’s escapades headlined national newspapers:
LADDIE BOY CHASES CAT UP TREE
LADDIE BOY FETCHES MORNING PAPERS FOR JAZZ PREZ
Nothing was too silly. The New York Times wanted a photo op with Laddie Boy? They got it. A press pass to Laddie Boy’s birthday party? They’re on the list. An exclusive interview with Laddie Boy? Of course!
But who should write the responses on Laddie Boy’s behalf? Probably a junior staffer? “No!” said Harding. “That’s a job for the president of the United States.”
Harding was canny. He’d worked in the newspaper business, getting his start in a newsroom when he was 10 years old, at the paper owned by his father. He knew how powerful the media was and how beneficial — or destructive — it could be to a presidency. He did everything he could to court the press, and a First Dog of the United States? Reporters would eat that up.
Harding may have been cynical, but he did love Laddie Boy intensely. He assumed everyone else would too. “I want a thousand bronze sculptures made of this dog,” he ordered his staff one day.
“Uh . . . should it include,” they asked, “you know, the penis?”
“Yes, you include the penis!” bellowed Harding. And so, Laddie Boy’s official effigies depicted every last bit of him.
Harding put Laddie Boy front and centre whenever possible. The dog led a grand Humane Society parade, championing animal welfare. And one year after the battle for women’s suffrage delivered the right to vote, Harding met 300 delegates of the National Council of Catholic Women in his office. Laddie Boy was there too. As if to say, “You are all women of astonishing dedication and resolve. Thank you for everything you’ve done for your country. I am so proud to shake your hand and finally call you, in every legal sense, my equal. Your hand will also be shaken by a dog.”
Laddie Boy was hot stuff. Men and women across America vied for the honour of having their own dog have sex with him. Laddie Boy had a social calendar. Laddie Boy hosted children’s parties. Laddie Boy’s birthday was celebrated with a cake and a letter from his absentee father, which read, paraphrasing: “Laddie Boy, you are a good dog and I am so proud of you. Sincerely, your dog father.”
This was the power of Laddie’s reputation: he had a brother, Dickie Boy, who was a Denver farm dog. One day Dickie Boy killed 70 chickens on a neighbouring property. Dickie’s owner was taken to court, where he asked the judge, “Come on, you don’t think that a dog with a brother in the White House would stoop to chasing a few chickens, do ya?”
“No,” said the judge. “No, that doesn’t seem possible at all.”
America loved Laddie Boy. That was very clear. But inside the Harding administration, feelings towards him were more complicated. John Weeks, Harding’s secretary of war, for instance, was not exactly thrilled that news of his accomplishments was being drowned out by anything that a dog did.
Still, there were many, many others in the administration who loved it, because one more front-page story about Laddie Boy was one fewer about the deeply criminal shit they were getting up to. When Harding became president, he mostly appointed friends and campaign donors to his cabinet and other high-ranking positions. It was an ethical roll of the dice that, more often than not, turned out catastrophically.
Harding’s friend from his Senate days, Albert Fall, was secretary of the interior. Fall was jailed after taking extravagant bribes from private drilling concerns for access to navy petroleum reserves. There was Albert Lasker, a major donor to Harding’s campaign, whom the incumbent president made chairman of the United States Shipping Board. When the private sector expressed interest in buying some of the government’s valuable cargo ships, Lasker told them to help themselves and just pay whatever they felt was fair. And then there was Harry Daughtery, Harding’s campaign manager, who was attorney-general. When he was given the task of enforcing prohibition, he just laughed and laughed.
Harding had stuck his neck out for all of them, a trust that they almost immediately and pathologically abused. For the most part, Harding didn’t even know what they had been up to and was truly pissed when he found out. He thought of himself as a loyal person and his friends had repaid that loyalty by taking whatever they could for themselves and hanging him out to dry. When these scandals came to light, the press that Harding had coaxed so deliberately to his side turned on the administration.
By 1922, nobody trusted Warren Harding and Warren Harding trusted nobody. Except, of course, Laddie Boy. Everyone still loved Laddie Boy. So, to explain how he was feeling, Harding took to writing to magazines and newspapers as his beloved dog. A dog who happened to express a very dim view of so-called friends who exploited power for personal gain.
“I am only 18 months old, and I do not know many other dogs . . . I have heard the Chief talk about some of his dog friends, and I know that he chooses to be known as the friend of good dogs,” went one letter. “Sometimes the Chief acts as though he would like to sit down when he and I can be alone, and I can look at him with sympathetic eyes, and he fixes his gaze on me in a grateful way, as much as to say, ‘Well, Laddie Boy, you and I are real friends, and we will never cheat each other.’”
“When the Chief looks at me this way, I know that he feels that I will never find fault with him, no matter what he does, and that I will never be ungrateful nor unfaithful.”
One year later, Harding was dead.
The commander-in-chief expired on a visit to California, likely from some sort of heart failure. Laddie Boy had not accompanied Harding on the trip and back home in the White House he howled for days. The first lady, Florence Harding, prepared to vacate the building for Harding’s successor, vice-president Calvin Coolidge. Florence gave Laddie Boy to a Secret Service agent, Harry Barker, because he had been the agent assigned to her and his name was Barker, and the first lady liked to theme her bequeathments.
Barker was transferred, and he, his family and Laddie Boy relocated to a quiet residence in Newtonville, Massachusetts, far from the nation’s capital. In DC, Laddie Boy had had a seat at the table of the most powerful men in the world. Newspapers attended his birthday parties. Charities tried to book him for events. Magazines bid for the right to publish his correspondence. Then it was all over.
While nearly everything in Newtonville was different, Harry Barker and Laddie Boy lived next door to a familiar face: John Weeks, Harding’s old secretary of war, and still no fan of Laddie Boy’s. Without Harding in the picture, Weeks was no longer under any obligation to find Laddie Boy adorable and he frequently screamed at him to stay the hell off his lawn.
That was life in Newtonville. There was no special treatment. No reporters. No fan club. Laddie Boy was just another nobody, and he got to live out the rest of his days like a regular mutt.
Duncan Fyfe is a writer and author of the history podcast “Something True”
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