By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-Residence
One of the common mantras among staffers at the Presidential Pet Museum is this: Pets aren’t political. We believe that animals stand apart from their human companion’s policies. Barney Bush didn’t order the invasion of Iraq, after all, and Sunny Obama never promoted an individual mandate in healthcare. You can love a particular pet regardless of how you feel about its family.
Recent events, however, are a reminder that just because our Museum doesn’t politicize our subjects doesn’t mean others won’t. The animal innocence we cite in our let’s-all-come-together ideals can make those precious fur-balls a blank canvas for whatever political message you wish to portray. Just ask Marlon Bundo.
Marlon is a rabbit who belongs to Charlotte Pence, the daughter of Vice President Mike Pence. The VP is a controversial figure dating back to his time as Indiana’s governor. A staunch social conservative, Pence has championed legislation that (depending on your perspective) either limits the rights of gays and lesbians or protects the rights of religious conservatives. This has not affected Marlon’s popularity. He is universally acknowledged to be adorable.
When it was announced that Charlotte and Marlon would “collaborate” on a children’s book about a bunny’s-eye view of life with the Vice President, we at the Museum knew the precedent: Millie’s Book, the best-seller written by Barbara Bush (transcribing for Millie). In other words, we expected a non-political bunny story with some Pence family cameos. (Art by Karen Pence, the VP’s wife, was a bonus.) Marlon Bundo’s Day in the Life of the Vice President arrived Monday, as expected.
The political satirists at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver had a different idea. They produced a competing book, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, written by Jill Twiss (again, with “help” from the titular rabbit). This children’s book largely ignores the VP, taking a page from Tango Makes Three instead. In this version, Marlon meets another rabbit named Wesley, and they fall in love. They must fight an evil stink bug for the right to marry. It’s a bit of literary jiu-jitsu, using the Pence family rabbit in a critique of policies the Vice President supports.
This actually isn’t the first time politician’s pets have been weaponized for political purposes. Fala, Franklin Roosevelt’s dog, became the subject of controversy when Republicans alleged that the president had misused military equipment to transport the dog. FDR responded with a blistering rejoinder remembered as “the Fala speech,” belittling his rivals for attacking his family pet.
Our Museum’s collection contains some Clinton-era memorabilia depicting Socks the Cat referencing Bill’s infamous “I didn’t inhale” marijuana denial. One can also find a plush replica of Buddy, the Clintons’ Labrador, carrying Monica Lewinsky’s panties in his mouth.
Clearly, presidential pets can be political.
So what to make of the dueling Marlon Bundo books? Perhaps Charlotte Pence has the best outlook. Both books, she noted, raise money for charity. Given that, it’s a win-win for animal lovers of all political persuasions. We’ve ordered a copy of each.