How LBJ's Dog's Ears Became A National Concern In 1964
LBJ Library photo by Cecil Stoughton
In 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson lifted a beagle by its ears in front of reporters, he enraged animal lovers and animal rights groups. Johnson, a Texan and dog lover, pulled the stunt to make the dog yelp before some visiting businessmen, according to Life magazine, and said "It does them good to let them yelp." He claimed he didn't think he was hurting the dog, but Humane Society spokespeople begged to differ, and Johnson caught heat from activists' public statements and newspaper editorial pages. It was a public bickering match that the President wasn't going to win. Today, the photo and the botched response stands as one of the most memorable presidential gaffes of all time.
Johnson Had Bigger Problems Than His Dogs
Following the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, Johnson took over as President and was just five months in the office when, on April 27, 1964, he lifted a beagle named Him by the ears on the White House lawn. 1964 was a year of turmoil, from the Vietnam War to the battles over Civil Rights -- but this one photo-op gone awry captured the attention of the nation for a brief time, overshadowing some of the more pressing news of the time.
According to The Pawprints of History, Johnson's quote in the moment was:
Ya see, pulling their ears is good for a hound. Everybody who knows dogs knows that little yelp you heard just means the dog is paying attention.
Dog lovers wrote the White House to express their disappointment, and spokespeople from animal rights organizations made statements or gave interviews. As a representative of the New York ASPCA put it, "If someone picked you up by the ears, you’d yelp, too."
A Seemingly Innocent Photo Op
The story blew up, and what really happened wasn't even clear. Was Johnson intentionally causing pain in order to make the dog yelp? Or was he simply trying to get the dog into the picture? Furthermore, there was debate over whether lifting a dog by its ears is even painful -- some experienced beagle handlers pointed out that it was a common practice to lift small pups in this way, when they weighed next to nothing, but that doing so with an adult dog probably would be painful.
The comments in the press varied from condemnation of his actions to expressions of concern about the excessive focus on the incident. Some people even raised the comparison between his treatment of dogs and his treatment of people.
It Even Became Political
The incident filtered into the politics of the day as well. In a conversation with Senator Mike Mansfield, they briefly discussed the bill that was going before Congress and then complained about Senate minority leader, Everett Dirksen, a Republican who supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which Johnson later signed into law. Dirksen, apparently, seemed to mock Johnson on the Senate floor by pulling on his own ears.
Kennel owner Claude Williams, whose facility had boarded numerous presidential dogs over the years, said he disapproved of Johnson's action -- but seemed to correct himself for political reasons. "I'm a good Democrat, and I would not want to criticize the president," he told the Associated Press.
The Truth About LBJ's Dogs
The overly publicized incident belied the truth that Johnson was a lifelong dog lover, seemingly partial to the beagle. Johnson had two beagles, Him and Her, sired by his dog, named simply Beagle. Apparently, he was not very good at naming dogs. When he took office, he had the doghouse enlarged for the AKC-registered beagles, and the press called it a “palace.” His dogs even attended state meetings with visiting heads of state and were quite often photographed and a 1964 article in Life pointed out the fact that the dogs lived a good life. Reportedly, they often slept in the presidential bedroom.
Because of the unfortunate picture and the press that followed, Johnson had to repair his image. He issued a public apology, but even then commented stated that “I’ve been pulling Him’s ears since he was a pup and he seemed to like it.” As an article in the Washington Post pointed out, Johnson joined the Humane Society as well, almost as an act of penance.
Unfortunately, both Him and Her died shortly after. Her swallowed a pebble and Him was hit by a car. Another dog, named Yuki, lived in the White House for the remainder of LBJ’s term. Yuki, a mixed breed, had been found at at gas station by Johnson’s daughter Luci and Johnson kept the stray dog.
Lyndon Johnson Made A Record About His Love Of Dogs
Yuki had a specific talent: singing -- at least, the President thought he could sing. Visitors to the White House would be treated to Yuki’s singing, and Johnson would howl along with Yuki. After Johnson left office, he recorded an unusual album, Dogs Have Always Been My Friends: Lyndon Johnson Reminisces. In addition to tracks about growing up with dogs, the album includes a track of Johnson “singing” along with Yuki.
Tags: Dogs | Lyndon Johnson | US Presidents
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