On December 4, 2013, Michelle Obama’s new dog Sunny attacked 2-year old Ashtyn Gardner of Mobile, Alabama – the daughter of a military serviceman – knocking her to the floor during a Christmas event at the White House.
Just let that be noted in the annals of history, when Ezra Klein writes his Bob Woodward book on Obama’s second term and they open the Presidential Library in Chicago. Let it be noted that the dog jumped up and swiped at the girl, prompting frenzy in a room packed with photographers. This wasn’t LBJ holding Him and Her up by their ears. This wasn’t the Romney Put His Dog On the Roof of the Car scandal that defined the 2012 campaign.
This was a real disgrace. This was a moment of violence and confusion. This was the kind of embarrassment that if it happened to a regular family – if their dog attacked a neighbor’s little girl – the neighbors would immediately know that something was wrong.
After it happened, an NPR pool reporter investigated whether the dog did it or whether the little girl tripped on the walker of the handicapped child next to her. The media managed to turn the whole thing into a joke, but you’d better believe they were ready to fight back with a serious Obama defense: It was the handicapped kid’s fault.
Presidencies are defined by moments, and the defining ones for this presidency have come in the last seven months. The May 15 announcement that the acting commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service was resigning because his agency targeted the president’s political enemies during an election year. The July 19 post-verdict speech that gave us “Trayvon Martin could have been me.” The September 10 address to the nation pitching a military strike in Syria that even the president didn’t know why he was supporting. The September 20 pre-shutdown rally that claimed Republicans are “holding the whole country hostage.” The November 14 admission that “I am not a perfect man and I will not be a perfect president.”
Just imagine how these kinds of gaffes would seem if the president didn’t have the press to cover up each and every stain.
On August 20, 1973, President Richard Nixon spun around and shoved his press secretary Ron Ziegler in New Orleans. Here’s how The Evening News breathlessly reported it (“according to witnesses”):
“After stepping from his limousine outside the hall, Nixon walked across the street to shake hands along the fringes of a crowd. Moments later, he headed for a side door of the convention center. As he reached the door, he discovered that some reporters apparently were preparing to enter the same door, while some members of the official party – including the Louisiana governor and congressmen – were lost in the confusion and crush that often accompanies presidential movements.
Nixon halted and summoned Press Secretary Ronald L. Ziegler. He grasped Ziegler by the shoulders and told him, “I don’t want any press with me.” Then, spinning Ziegler around, Nixon gave him a forceful shove with the order: “‘Take care of it!’ Most reporters had been directed toward another door, and the few near Nixon were quickly headed toward it, too.”
That became an iconic moment in the media’s historical account of a White House in crisis. The only difference was that Nixon’s dog didn’t attack a little girl.