Most high-profile politicians acquire weird little bits of biography that you just cannot shake out of your mind. A reporter once told me that he sat next to a member of Congress on a trip, while said lawmaker kept eating mayonnaise out of those little packets they give you at fast-food restaurants. Even if this guy someday single-handedly resurrects the Equal Rights Amendment and shepherds it through 37 state Legislatures, when I look at him, a corner of my brain will always think condiments.
Then there is Mitt Romney, a candidate most of us don't really know well yet. (A disconcerting number of well-informed people seem to believe his name is "Mort.") Yet he could become the Republican presidential nominee. It behooves us to pay attention, to mull his Iran plan and deconstruct his position on health care.
But every time I see him, all I can think about is Seamus the dog.
Seamus, in case you missed the story, was the Romneys' Irish setter back in the early 1980s. Mitt used to drive the family from Boston to Ontario every summer for a vacation, with the dog strapped to the roof in a crate.
As the Boston Globe reported this summer, Romney had the entire trip planned so rigidly that every gas station stop was predetermined before departure. During the fatal trip of '83, Seamus apparently needed one more than the schedule allowed. When evidence of the setter's incontinence came running down the back windshield, Romney abandoned his itinerary and drove to the closest gas station, where he got a hose and sprayed both dog and station wagon clean.
"It was a tiny preview of a trait he would grow famous for in business: emotion-free crisis management," the Globe said.
Well, you could spin it that way. Imagine George W. Bush staring blankly at the windshield, the way he did during his My Pet Goat moment. However, how many people out there are troubled by the idea that we might have a president who wouldn't let his kids go to the bathroom unless it was time for a preauthorized rest stop?
Romney has already come under considerable fire from animal rights groups over the Seamus incident. "They're not happy that my dog loves fresh air," Romney snapped back. He said that just recently, in Pittsburgh, although Seamus had actually long since shuffled off this mortal coil.
Is it possible that Romney is trying to dodge the Republican YouTube debate because he's afraid someone will ask him about his method of transporting dogs across long distances? Perhaps we could have one sponsored by the ASPCA instead.
Most of the candidates from both parties have pets. In fact, so many of them have golden retrievers or labradors you can't help but wonder if they rent them. (John Edwards, ever the conspicuous consumer, has one of each.) This could be an excellent opportunity for John McCain to catch a break, since he seems to have the largest menagerie. Although counting each of the fish individually was a bit much.
McCain also has a ferret, which could provide ample opportunity for lively discussion with Rudy Giuliani, a well-known ferret-hater. Few of us who lived in New York City during his ferret-banning crusade can forget the day a ferret owner confronted the mayor on a radio-call-in show. Giuliani, in tones of Dr. Phil on steroids, urged him to seek psychiatric care. ("This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness.")
Animal-lovers around the nation may also be interested to know that Giuliani's second wife once asked for $1,140 a month in dog support for Goalie, the family retriever. Or that the third Mrs. Giuliani is a former saleswoman for surgical staplers - a profession that involves demonstrations of how well the product works during unnecessary surgery on dogs.
The Giuliani campaign has dodged the question of whether Judith Nathan Giuliani ever was involved in this kind of activity, which usually ends badly for the dog in question. This week a spokesman said he didn't know, adding: "In the 1970s that was an acceptable medical technique," which I think we can probably take for a yes.
Once we settle all these issues we can get back to health care. Although every time Mitt Romney walks on stage, a sodden Irish setter is going to flash before my eyes.