As one of the most popular politicians of the last decade, Mitt Romney’s used to being in the spotlight. However, there’s one incident that has always seemed baffling to a lot of people: in 1983, he traveled for 12 hours with his dog on top of his car.
And given our collective love for dogs, this incident became a huge point of discussion during Romney’s ill-fated 2008 and 2012 Presidential campaigns. Honestly, the fascination with the episode highlights our tendency to look outside politics in our voting decisions.
Due to this, this article will discuss the impact this incident had on both elections and all the consequences Romney faced that stemmed from this ill-fated decision.
However, before we dive into this strange impactful event, we need to recap who Mitt Romney is and why this became such a national story?
Who is Mitt Romney?
Born into a very ambitious family with parents who were both politicians, George and Lenore Romney, Mitt was destined to follow the same path. He spent most of his childhood life in Bloomfield, Michigan being raised in the Mormon faith that he would later be primarily associated with during his political career.
He furthered his association with his faith when in “July 1966, he began a thirty-month stint in France as a Mormon missionary, a traditional rite of passage in his family.” After completing his 2 ½ year Mormon mission in France, he continued onto college at Brigham Young University where he met his wife, Ann Davies, and got BA in English.
After BYU, he moved onto the prodigious Harvard University where he received “a joint JD–MBA… in 1975.” Then, he surprisingly took himself out of the political arena by becoming a management consultant and“ in 1977 secured a position at Bain & Company”.
At Bain & Company, he rose through the ranks and eventually became the Chief Executive Officer (CEO). In doing so, he helped the company come out of the depths of financial ruin.
After all his success in the business world, Mitt decided it was time to enter the family business of politics and put himself in the 1994 race for U.S. Senator in Massachusetts. As his father and mother did before him, he chose to represent the Republican Party.
After losing the 1994 race to Ted Kennedy, Romney kept himself away from the political world for a couple of years. However, he couldn’t stay away for long, and with a successful stint as President and CEO of the then-struggling Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics, Romney was back in the game.
He used all the positive momentum gained from his experience at Salt Lake Organizing Committee to revive his political career. Romney targeted the 2002 Governor race in Massachusetts and ended winning the election defeating Shannon O’Brien.
Despite bringing forth positive changes as Governor, he didn’t seek re-election in 2006. Instead, he switched his focus toward a more prominent, loftier goal: becoming President. In doing so, Romney fought valiantly for the 2008 Republican Presidential Nomination, but it went to Senator John McCain.
Unlike before, the loss didn’t discourage Romney from continuing his political career. In fact, he immediately turned his attention to securing the 2012 Republican Presidential Nomination the moment McCain lost the Presidential election.
And this time Romney was successful in getting the Nomination setting up a race between him and Barack Obama to see who’d be the next President. But again, things didn’t turn as expected for Romney and he was defeated by Obama losing both the electoral college and the popular votes.
Now, that you’ve got a recap of Romney’s life and career, it’s time we examine what exactly happened and the consequences of the dog incident back in 1983.
Dogs Against Romney
During both his attempts at becoming president, Romney was met with heavy criticism regarding an incident back in 1983 with his dog named Seamus. It was used by his opponents to diminish his reputation in the eyes of the voters, and it worked to perfection. Honestly, one of the oddest tactics ever put into play during an election, but a successful one nonetheless.
For example, it spawned a common phrase/group, “Dogs Against Romney,” that was used to promote the beliefs of anti-Romney voters. In fact, it’s often regarded as one of the most successful anti-Romney campaign efforts.
In 1983, Mitt Romney and his family took a 12-hour trip up to Romney’s parents’ house in Beach O’Pines, Ontario. This seems like a normal occurrence except for all 12 hours their dog, Seamus, was in a kennel strapped to the top of their station wagon.
As you would expect, poor Seamus got sick along the trip with a severe case of diarrhea. In response, Romney proceeded to stop the car, wash Seamus and the kennel, and put Seamus back inside the kennel on top of the vehicle.
You’d think he’d have put Seamus somewhere else, but nope not Mitt Romney. It’s not surprising given he seems very stubborn about how he views his life. I’d imagine this stubbornness is prevalent in all aspects of his life.
Besides stubbornness, you’re probably wondering how anyone could think strapping your dog’s kennel to the top of the car is a good idea? And Romney’s rivals use this lack of logic against him to dehumanize him.
Not surprisingly, this didn’t become public knowledge until 2007 when Romney’s name started coming up in consideration for the 2008 Republican Presidential Nomination. The leaker of this incident seems to be Mitt’s son Tagg Romney, who was trying to use the story to portray his father favorably. You can see that here in this Washington Post article,“It has come to characterize the candidate — and not in the favorable way Tagg Romney hoped for when he first talked in 2007 about his family’s annual road trips.”
Another excerpt from a story published by the Boston Globe depicts the incident in a vivid and almost novelistic fashion:
“Before beginning the drive, Mitt Romney put Seamus, the family’s hulking Irish setter, in a dog carrier and attached it to the station wagon’s roof rack. He’d built a windshield for the carrier, to make the ride more comfortable for the dog.
Then Romney put his boys on notice: He would be making predetermined stops for gas, and that was it.
The ride was largely what you’d expect with five brothers, ages 13 and under, packed into a wagon they called the ”white whale.”
As the oldest son, Tagg Romney commandeered the way-back of the wagon, keeping his eyes fixed out the rear window, where he glimpsed the first sign of trouble. ”Dad!” he yelled. ”Gross!” A brown liquid was dripping down the back window, payback from an Irish setter who’d been riding on the roof in the wind for hours.
As the rest of the boys joined in the howls of disgust, Romney coolly pulled off the highway and into a service station. There, he borrowed a hose, washed down Seamus and the car, then hopped back onto the highway. It was a tiny preview of a trait he would grow famous for in business: emotion-free crisis management”
After reading that excerpt, I don’t see how Tagg Romney thought it’d be a good story to share with the press, however, for some reason he did. And as you’ll see in the sections below, this decision had a profound impact on both of Romney’s Presidential candidacies.
Election in 2008
Only months before Seamus would become a political icon, on February 13, 2007, Mitt Romney informed the world he intended to run for President. At this point, the discussion around was solely about his Mormon faith and how “he has been trying to buff up his credentials with conservatives, leading some critics to accuse him of changing his positions in anticipation of a White House bid.”
He intended to run on the basis of family being, “ the foundation of America — and that we must fight to protect and strengthen it. I believe in the sanctity of human life. I believe that people and their elected representatives should make our laws, not unelected judges.”
In other words, he was trying to appeal to the ordinary human being. Romney was trying to show the world he could relate, even though, he grew up very comfortably. However, his whole platform would crumble under the weight of a story about a dog.
Boston Globe Article Released
In June 2007, the cat was let out of the bag on the infamous Romney dog incident with the release of the before mentioned Boston Globe article. According to the article, “the incident was pointed to as an example of Romney’s emotion-free crisis management style.” Of course, this backfired badly as most people only cared about the safety of the dog and viewed,“the mode of canine transport the dog was subjected to as unnecessarily callous and cruel.”In his quest to win the favor of the common man, he forgot who’s a man’s best friend, their dog.
And his response to the public outcry, “They’re not happy that my dog loves fresh air” wasn’t effective in curtailing the public’s outrage. This wasn’t the only cringe-worthy response from the Romney family, as his wife Ann, jump into the conversation with a blog posted on the Five Brothers Blog.
A highlight quote from the blog post,“Surprise, surprise, the media didn’t get the dog story right. Our dog Seamus rode in an ENCLOSED kennel, not in the open air”, makes me think Ann Romney didn’t fully understand why people were mad.
Yes, Seamus in the open air would be much worse than being in an enclosed kennel, but an enclosed kennel strapped to a car roof isn’t safe either. As you would expect, people didn’t receive this response relatively well either.
In fact, many were trying to see if Romney broke any animal cruelty laws with his actions. Articles like this one from TIME magazine kept popping up debating whether or not what he did to Seamus was considered cruel.
The consensus seems to side with the notice of his actions being cruel. As seen in the TIME article, “Massachusetts’s animal cruelty laws specifically prohibit anyone from carrying an animal “in or upon a vehicle, or otherwise, in an unnecessarily cruel or inhuman manner or in a way and manner which might endanger the animal carried thereon.” I’d think poor Seamus trapped on top of a station wagon would fall into this description of endangering the animal.
And the “officer for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [who] responded to a description of the situation saying “it’s definitely something I’d want to check out” would probably agree with me.
All in all, the real damage this incident would have on Romney’s career wouldn’t wholly take shape until the 2012 Election because he failed to get the bid in 2008. See, he no longer mattered; therefore, the story went away until he became relevant again.
And sadly for Mitt Romney, the story would cause him a plague of issues once again in his 2012 Presidential campaign. In fact, this story only made matters worse as it aged.
The Election in 2012
As the Republican Presidential Nominee, the scrutiny around Romney increased. And with the increase of attention, the old story about Seamus came back to haunt Romney for the second time.
Several columnists used this story to discredit Romney’s run for President. For example, Lanny Davis from Fox News wrote this article based around this very premise. In the article, Davis writes the following, “But when I read the story recently in greater detail about what Romney did to his Irish Setter, Seamus, that struck me as more than heartless — it struck me as downright cruel.”
This reaction from Davis pinpoints how destructive this story was to Romney’s run. Think about it like this, as Davis articulates, “There are more than 78 million Americans who own one or more dogs — about two out of every five households”. I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that more than those 78 million Americans would feel the same as Davis or me. It made Romney seem inhuman, it essentially dehumanized him in the eyes of many. The man who built his whole campaign about relating to the common man became unrelatable. It was a death blow to his Presidential aspirations.
However, there were people trying to defend Romney such as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus who wrote, “I’m not much of a Romney fan, but I don’t think what he did to Seamus was so terrible.” Her rationzation for this belief comes from the fact she questions, “Look, the guy was in a station wagon with his wife, five kids and an Irish setter. Where, exactly, was he supposed to fit the dog?”
Let’s be honest; she does have a point, however, I’d follow up by asking given how much money Mitt Romney has, why couldn’t he hire a dog sitter or someone else to drive Seamus up there? There were other more logical options available to the Romney and it just seems odd that putting your dog on top of your station wagon was the choice they saw most logical. In fact, it’s mind-boggling.
This feeling of questioning Mitt Romney’s sense of logic is something I share with one of his biggest rivals during the nomination phase, Rick Santorum. See, Santorum’s advisor John Brabender on CNN said “I’m not sure I’m going to listen to the value judgment of a guy who strapped his own dog on the top of the roof of his car and went hurling down the highway,” Of course, this comment was a ploy to try and weaken Romney’s bid, but it’s a premise an sane person would agree has merit.
Santorum wasn’t the only competitor to use the Seamus story to their advantage. During the Nomination phase, Romney’s adversary Newt Gingrich created a web video that used “an excerpt from an interview in which Romney discusses the now-infamous episode back in the 1980s when he strapped the family dog, an Irish setter named Seamus, to the roof his car during an extended family trip to Canada.” Although Gingrich didn’t ultimately get the nomination, his use of this excerpt shows how detrimental this story is to Romney’s reputation.
Besides his rivals for the nomination bid, Romney also faced scrutiny about Seamus from the man he eventually lose the Presidential election too, Barack Obama,. At the 98th Annual White House Correspondents Dinner, Obama showed a video making fun of the whole Seamus ordeal. His showing of this video was after several back and forths between the two campaigns in which the Republicans tried to shifted the negativity from the Seamus incident.
See, a report from “Jim Treacher of the conservative Daily Caller website unleashed a new twist in the 2012 election campaign’s dog war on Tuesday with a column, “Obama bites dog,” about how Obama tried dog meat as a child.” When the report came out, conservatives had a field day on Twitter, “with the hashtag #obamadogrecipes”. Of course, liberals responded with their own cleverness hastags and memes. Essentially, it had become a real phenomenon and it all started with Seamus.
And with the rise of social media it was only going to get worse. Honestly, the story became a much more significant factor than it was in 2008. Romney could hide from the story much more effectively in 2007 or 2008 because it wasn’t going to trend on Facebook and Twitter. But now, a site like Facebook could allow people to set up groups based around pushing anti-Romney beliefs. Several of these groups targeted the Seamus story as their way to speak out against Romney.
As these groups got more significant, they started organizing events and protests to spread their message. One of these groups, Dogs Against Romney, created by Scott Crider boasted as many as “50,000 friends on Facebook” in 2012. In doing so, they made sure to get their voice heard about Seamus struggle at every given opportunity.
For example, Dogs Against Romney set up a 30-minute rally outside the Westminster Dog Show at Madison Square Garden with the sole purpose of spreading the story of Seamus to as many people as possible. As the group’s spokesman said, “It’s important for people to understand the kind of character of this man who is running for president…It indicates the sense of entitlement that this man has — that he would impose his will like that on the family pet.” In other words, if he’s going to treat something he loves, like his family pet, cruelly, what do you think Romney’s going to do with the people he’s in charge of?
Besides Dogs Against Romney, there were other people using the Seamus story for all types of things. For example, the musical recording artist Devo released a “track entitled “Don’t Roof Rack Me, Bro! (Remember Seamus).” Obviously, inspired by the 12-hour horror show that Seamus was subjected to on that fateful trip.
It’s incredible how an incident that has nothing to with politics could affect the outcome of something as major as a Presidential election. It goes to show that in politics even the smallest thing can have a significant difference in how people see a politician.
In the end, Seamus finally got his revenge on his old buddy Mitt for strapping him on top of the car. I guess, karma does exist.