If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog, Harry S. Truman supposedly once said. But what if the dog is not all that friendly?
For President Biden, pet ownership in the White House has proved to be a presidential headache as a series of biting incidents, including one that is said to have left blood on the floor, has now forced him to banish a second family dog from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Commander, the 2-year-old German shepherd who at times has been more conflict animal than comfort animal, has been dispatched to what a previous administration might have called an undisclosed location to protect the Secret Service agents who are supposed to be protecting the president — just as Major, another presidential canine, was two years ago.
The unhappy end to Commander’s term in the White House has provided fodder for tabloids and late-night comics but also hints at the complicated and sometimes tense dynamics inside one of the world’s most exclusive mansions. The relationship between a president and the staff that serves him is inherently fraught as the two adjust to each other’s habits, preferences and needs. But in this case, according to insiders, it has also been strained by resentment and suspicion.
For Secret Service agents and officers as well as residential staff, the president’s failure to take decisive action sooner has been baffling and frustrating, people close to them say. The agents have no choice but to stick close to the president and have felt uncomfortable not knowing if they might get bitten. Areas of the White House grounds were declared off limits when Commander was around, complicating their assignments.
Records obtained by a conservative watchdog organization this past summer indicated that there had been at least 10 instances of aggressive behavior before an 11th reported incident last week. However, two people who have been briefed on the matter but asked not to be identified because of its sensitivity said on Friday that the real total is more like two or three dozen. One previously reported biting incident, in which a Secret Service officer required hospital treatment, was so bad that it spilled blood on the floor, according to one of the people.
On the other side is a president and his family who do not seem to feel all that at home in the White House, so much so that they escape nearly every weekend to one of their real homes in Delaware or, alternatively, Camp David. The dog has been one of their sources of comfort in the museum-like presidential mansion, and the family has been reluctant to lose him. Some around the president suspect the Secret Service of leaking the news of the dog bites to force his hand.
“Obviously, this has become a major problem,” said Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents Secret Service personnel. “I’m glad they’re addressing it now. But how many bites does it take to address it?”
The White House has issued statements expressing concern for those affected. “The president and the first lady care deeply about the safety of those who work at the White House and those who protect them every day,” Elizabeth Alexander, a spokeswoman for Jill Biden, said this week. “They remain grateful for the patience and support of the U.S. Secret Service and all involved as they continue to work through solutions.”
White House officials stress that they took steps to address the problem even though they did not succeed. But it has not gone unnoticed in the Secret Service that the White House statement did not include an explicit apology to those who had been bitten.
The Bidens respect those guarding them, according to one former administration official, who like others asked not to be identified discussing personal matters, but who said that for a variety of reasons there are trust issues.
Of course, a bite from Commander hardly compares to the biting rhetoric from a former commander in chief, and some around Mr. Biden bristle at attention to the matter while his predecessor, Donald J. Trump, threatens those he dislikes with execution while facing multiple criminal and civil charges.
As it happens, Mr. Trump was the first president in nearly one and a half centuries who did not have a dog in the White House. And others have had trouble disciplining their canine friends, according to Andrew Hager, the historian in residence for the Presidential Pet Museum, an online tribute to animals that have lived in the White House.
Theodore Roosevelt had a menagerie at the mansion, including a pony, a zebra, a parrot, bears, a lion, a hyena, a coyote, rats and a one-legged rooster. He also had an aggressive dog named Pete who chased and bit multiple people, including the French ambassador, before finally being sent off to live at Sagamore Hill, the family’s New York home.
King Tut, a Belgian Shepherd owned by Herbert Hoover, had previously been a police dog and struggled at the White House because he was so nervous and anxious about protecting the family. Records are not clear on what he did, but the Hoovers eventually sent him back to their house on S Street in Washington.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, like Mr. Biden, had a German shepherd also named Major, who tore the pants of the British prime minister at a state dinner in 1933. He was sent away too. Barney, the Scottish terrier beloved by George W. Bush, bit a Reuters reporter in 2008, but with the president’s term just weeks from expiring, the dog got to stay until the end.
“The presidency is an incredibly lonely job with pressures and burdens few people can possibly understand,” said Lindsay M. Chervinsky, a senior fellow at Southern Methodist University’s Center for Presidential History. “Accordingly, most presidents have found it enormously helpful to have dog-friends who don’t really care what they did right or wrong, don’t care about the poll numbers or fund-raising goals, and simply love them regardless.”
The Bidens clearly feel the same way. Their dogs have long been an integral part of the family and could roam freely at their homes in Rehoboth Beach and Wilmington, Del. Jill Biden would sometimes FaceTime with her dogs from the campaign trail in 2016. After their dog Champ died in 2021 at age 13 and Major was sent to live with friends of the Bidens’ because of his own biting, James Biden, the president’s brother, gave him Commander as a birthday gift.
The first lady would bring Commander along with Willow the cat to her office in the East Wing, where there were food bowls waiting. The dog had a fenced-in section in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden where he could run around. But his training evidently never fully clicked, and he never adjusted to life in Washington. “The White House can be a stressful environment for pets,” Ms. Alexander said.
The relationship between the Bidens and the Secret Service was sensitive even before any fangs were bared. During his days as vice president, they shared some difficult, bonding moments together, including the death of his son Beau. But then as now, Mr. Biden made a point of traveling home to Delaware regularly, with plans often fluid until the last minute, which produced grumbling among agents who had to scramble to make arrangements and then lost weekends with their own families.
At the same time, once he won the presidency, Mr. Biden noticed that some in the Secret Service seemed to have grown close to Mr. Trump and reportedly wondered about their loyalty. When the first biting incident involving Major was reported, Mr. Biden told a friend that “it didn’t happen” and that someone was lying, according to “The Fight of His Life,” Chris Whipple’s account of the early Biden term. Mr. Whipple, who had extensive access to Mr. Biden’s staff, reported that the president did not feel comfortable speaking freely around his agents.
But Anthony Guglielmi, the chief of communications for the Secret Service, denied that there was friction. “The relationship is not strained,” he said. “Especially the agents of the P.P.D., the presidential protective division, have a tremendous amount of respect and trust for the president and I can say that that’s mutual.”
Ms. Alexander echoed that. “The Bidens have the utmost respect and admiration for the Secret Service and have always experienced a warm, personal and trusting relationship with them throughout their years in the White House and vice president,” she said.
As for Truman, it turns out that he may never have actually uttered the sage words so often attributed to him.
The get-a-dog quote began showing up in The New York Times in the 1980s credited to the former president, but in reality may have originated from a play featuring a Truman character. “We have never been able to confirm or verify that President Truman ever wrote or said, ‘If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,’” said Sam Rushay, supervisory archivist at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.
And it was not advice Truman took himself. When a crate arrived at the White House just before Christmas in 1947 with a 5-week-old cocker spaniel named Feller as a gift, Truman was immune to his charms and gave him to his White House physician, Wallace Graham. “The Trumans,” said Mr. Rushay, “were not pet people.”