With his double-digit victory in Tuesday's Illinois primary, Mitt Romney moved closer to a goal he has been doggedly pursuing since 2007—making Seamus famous.
Already, Seamus (the Romney family's Irish setter during the 1980s) ranks up there with FDR's Fala and Richard Nixon's Checkers in the pantheon of political pets. Seamus stamped his paw print on history by heroically riding for 12 hours in a dog carrier atop the family's station wagon during a 1983 vacation to Canada. The pooch eventually became incontinent, so Romney made an unscheduled gas-station stop to hose Seamus down.
When the Boston Globe's Neil Swidey first uncovered the Seamus saga in 2007, it was highlighted as a prime example of Romney's "emotion-free crisis management." These days, New York Times columnist Gail Collins invokes Seamus as a black mark every time she mentions Romney and a New Yorker cover used the woof-woof-on-the-roof as a visual metaphor with Rick Santorum in the dog house atop the Mitt-mobile. The safest bet in politics is that Romney will be hounded by Seamus as long as he is a presidential candidate.
The 29-year-old Seamus story is undeniably fun. But is it (warning: cosmic question ahead) relevant to imagining President Romney in the White House next January? Presidential candidates often see minor bits of personal history magnified into fodder for late-night comics, whether it was Bill Clinton's saxophone playing or George W. Bush as a prep-school cheerleader. But Romney's travel arrangements for the trip to Canada appear to speak to something larger about his leadership style.
Reading the original mid-2007 Boston Globe story, it seems clear that one of the sources was Romney's eldest son, Tagg. The anecdote presumably was proffered as an amusing childhood reminiscence (Tagg was 13 in 1983) to portray Romney's approach to raising five rambunctious sons. There was probably a secondary motivation as well—to illustrate Romney's love for his wife, Ann. While Seamus and the Romney sons were allowed to go to the bathroom only when the Chevrolet station wagon (nicknamed the "white whale") needed gas, Ann Romney could halt the journey at will. As Tagg put it, "As soon as my mom says, 'I think I need to go to the bathroom,' he pulls over instantly, and doesn't complain. 'Anything for you, Ann.'"
Passionate dog lovers may disagree, but I see no larger presidential significance in Romney's actual treatment of Seamus. It was a dog's life on the way to Canada whether riding in a kennel atop a car for 12 hours or crammed in with five young boys and untold suitcases. I believe Romney when he told Fox News in 2007, "We loved the dog. [The roof] was where he was comfortable. ... My guess is he liked it a lot better in his kennel than he would have liked it inside."
Of course, the Shame of Seamus will become a Democratic talking point if Romney is the GOP nominee. Already, the Obama campaign is enthusiastically promoting Bo, the first family's Portuguese water dog. Appearing this week with David Letterman, Michelle Obama went so far as to jokingly claim that the dog "is my son. I have two girls and a boy."
What gives the Seamus story legs (four) is the inadvertent glimpse it offers of Romney's rigidity. For all the natural parental annoyance with the constant are-we-there-yet demands and the bodily needs of five boys on the trek to Canada, it is a rare father who would so zealously limit bathroom and food stops. Remember: The Romneys were not exactly desperate refugees racing to get across the Canadian border before they were stopped by the authorities. They were an affluent American family on vacation, but with all the spontaneous joy of an automotive assembly line. Seamus was collateral damage. What matters is the suck-it-up discipline that Mitt Romney tried to impose on his family.
People are not cyborgs—they have human needs, including a propensity for rest stops and, in politics, healthy egos. But an awareness of these personal factors does not seem to be part of the Romney repertoire. "The Real Romney" by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, pointedly notes, "He is not fed by and does not crave, casual social interaction, often displaying little desire to know who people are and what makes them tick." That same theme—that Romney governed Massachusetts from a fortress of solitude—was emphasized in a recent New York Times profile by Michael Barbaro: "Despite prodding from his aides, a governor renowned for his mastery of facts and figures never memorized the names and faces of state politicians."
Although Romney's aloof style has different roots than Barack Obama's cerebral detachment, the similarity suggests that we may be headed for a presidential year when both candidates view voters primarily as abstractions. After covering the 2008 campaign, I regretted that I missed an important clue about Obama's loner personality that was hiding in plain sight on the opening page of his autobiography, "Dreams from My Father." Describing his time as an undergraduate at Columbia University, Obama writes, "I was impatient in those days, busy with work and unrealized plans, and prone to see other people as unnecessary distractions." Unlike virtually every other man who has run for the White House in modern history, Mitt Romney undoubtedly would understand what the youthful Obama meant.
Although they would never admit it publicly—and both men would clearly make an exception for their families—Romney and Obama might secretly appreciate Jean-Paul Sartre's line, "Hell is—other people." The words are spoken in the final seconds of Sartre's play, "No Exit." And, to bring us full circle, "No Exit" can also be used to describe the plight of Seamus—trapped on the roof of a station wagon hurtling down the highway toward Canada, deprived of a bathroom break because of the hyper-rational Romney schedule.
Walter Shapiro, who is covering his ninth presidential campaign, writes the "Character Sketch" column for Yahoo News, examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates. He is also a special correspondent for the New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD.
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