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PolitiFact: Mitt Romney and the dog on the car roof: Gail Collins' obsession

The story about Seamus, Mitt Romney’s old Irish setter, has been a target for Romney haters and animal lovers.

Associated Press

The story about Seamus, Mitt Romney’s old Irish setter, has been a target for Romney haters and animal lovers.

Gail Collins loves telling the story of how Mitt Romney drove his family to Canada with the family dog strapped to the roof of the car — and telling it, and telling it, and telling it.

The liberal New York Times columnist has mentioned the incident in print 19 times, by our count. She devoted a column to it in 2007 when Romney first ran for president. In another column, she suggested John McCain pick Romney for his running mate "so I can repeatedly revisit the time Mitt drove to Canada with the family dog on the station-wagon roof." She complained that his 2010 campaign book No Apology didn't mention it, calling it "a critical oversight."

And just last week, she noted that the issue wasn't discussed during the Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Library. Romney's top rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, reportedly shot a coyote that was threatening his daughter's dog, which made the Romney anecdote relevant. "His puppy-rescue is a stirring picture, especially considering that Perry's chief competitor is the man who drove to Canada with the family dog Seamus strapped to the roof of the car."

Aside from wondering why Collins is so obsessed with the story, we wondered: Is it true?

We reached Collins to ask her why she liked the story so much, but she said she'd rather let her columns speak for themselves.

The story of Seamus the Irish setter is not an Internet rumor. It first appeared in the Boston Globe in 2007, when the paper published a seven-part profile of Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who had just launched a presidential run.

Seamus' story kicked off Day Four, a story about Romney's family life, written by Globe reporters Neil Swidey and Stephanie Ebbert.

It begins in 1983 with a 36-year-old Mitt Romney carefully packing up his five sons and luggage into the family station wagon for a 12-hour trip from Boston to Ontario, where his parents had a cottage on Lake Huron. At the time, Romney was a successful young consultant with Bain & Co.

"As with most ventures in his life, he had left little to chance, mapping out the route and planning each stop. . . . 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."

Cruel? It's not presented that way in the story, which noted Romney built a special windshield for the carrier, "to make the ride more comfortable for the dog."

But Seamus must not have been all that comfortable, because he began to experience, um, gastric distress.

From the story:

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.

As the story quickly made its way around the Internet, Romney loathers — and dog lovers — had a field day.

The liberal blog Wonkette said it showed Romney would be a great commander-in-chief for the notorious Iraq prison Abu Ghraib. David Kravitz of the liberal blog Blue Mass Group called it "nuts" and "classic Romney: it solves a problem efficiently, in a business-like manner, and with no regard whatsoever for the suffering that the solution may cause." Ingrid Newkirk of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told Time's Ana Marie Cox that Romney was giving his children "a lesson in cruelty" and that dogs under extreme stress might lose control of their bowels. "That alone should have been sufficient indication that the dog was, basically, being tortured," she said.

As to the accuracy of the story, the Globe learned of the incident from friends of the family and confirmed the details with the Romney family. And the candidate himself didn't dispute the report. In fact, in the days following, he defended it. Seamus loved riding in the carrier, Romney told reporters on the campaign trail in 2007.

"He scrambled up there every time we went on trips," Romney said. "He got (up) all by himself and enjoyed it." He also said PETA had targeted him because there was a rodeo at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. "And they're not happy that my dog likes fresh air," he added.

Actually, Seamus had been dead — of natural, non-station wagon-related causes — for years when the story appeared. We didn't get answers about Seamus from the Romney campaign, but from Swidey, the Globe reporter who unearthed the story.

Swidey said he chose the incident to begin his story because he thought it would resonate with readers as an illustration of Romney's approach to solving problems — trip is interrupted by dog poop, so Romney pulls over, borrows a hose, takes care of the problem, and is back on his way.

"I certainly didn't write it to make it the basis on which you judge a presidential candidate. The fact that some people appear to be doing that is a little bit crazy. But I can understand why it resonates with people," Swidey said. "It's a window into how this guy operates."

Swidey said some people see it as evidence of Romney's heartlessness, while others see him as a logical man and a problem solver.

He confirmed the impression we got from reading the story, that the incident was amusing family lore, and that none of the Romney family was upset or disturbed by the dog riding on the roof. In fact, some of the Romneys said they thought the dog actually liked riding on the roof.

We're ruling on Collins' statement that Romney "drove to Canada with the family dog Seamus strapped to the roof of the car." It's important to note that the dog was not literally strapped to the car, as in tied around its midsection. Rather, Seamus was in a carrier with a protective windscreen that Romney had built. We rate Collins' statement Mostly True.

The statement

Mitt Romney "drove to Canada with the family dog Seamus strapped to the roof of the car."

Gail Collins, New York Times columnist, in a column

The ruling

Politifact ruling: Mostly true
Seamus was strapped to the roof of the family car, but in a carrier with a protective windscreen. We rate Collins' statement Mostly True.

The statement

Mitt Romney "drove to Canada with the family dog Seamus strapped to the roof of the car."

Gail Collins, New York Times columnist, in a column

The ruling

Seamus was strapped to the roof of the family car, but in a carrier with a protective windscreen. We rate Collins' statement Mostly True.

PolitiFact: Mitt Romney and the dog on the car roof: Gail Collins' obsession 09/13/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 14, 2011 12:17am]

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