This liberal president picked up his dog by the ears — and it outraged animal rights activists

President Lyndon B. Johnson is one of American history’s most enigmatic figures. Although he is rightly criticized for bungling the Vietnam War, he was also one of the most productive progressives to ever inhabit the White House. Thanks to his knack for parliamentary maneuvering, Johnson passed some of the most important liberal legislation in American history: the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s, Medicare, Medicaid, consumer protections, federal funding to education and the arts and protecting the environment. Even today, many young progressives admire Johnson for his ability to succeed in accomplishing humanitarian goals.

“He forgot the fundamental political fact that for everyone who might possibly love a news photographer, there are perhaps millions who unquestionably love a dog.”

Yet once upon a time, the same man who is admired today for his War on Poverty was derided by many of those same activists for seemingly abusing his pet beagles. In the process, he inadvertently helped empower the animal rights movement. 

The incident of canine cruelty occurred on April 28, 1964. Johnson had only been president for five months, but he had impressed members of both parties with his strong, soothing leadership in the immediate aftermath of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination (which had put Johnson in the White House). As he casually strolled across the White House lawn with a group of guests, he decided to show off his two beagle puppies, Him and Her. Johnson wanted Him to bark, and so he held Him up by the ears.

“But I’m glad that the owner never missed him,” Johnson recalled, “because I surely would if he left me.”

A photographer snapped a shot, which appeared in newspapers nationwide shortly thereafter. Then, all hell broke loose.

The Humane Society of Texas publicly denounced Johnson, proclaiming “Ears are for hearing, not for pulling,” while newspaper editorialists, television commentators and casual citizens alike also expressed their contempt. Although Johnson would go on to be elected in November by one of the largest landslides in history, the ear-pulling incident was nevertheless remembered as a rare gaffe from his early days in office. Privately, Johnson swore that he would punish the journalists who broke the story by giving them “the silent treatment,” insisting that pulling on dogs’ ears was a healthy way to encourage them to bark. (Experts agree: It is absolutely not, and you should never do it.)

From a historical standpoint, the tale says a great deal about the evolution in American attitudes toward animal rights. Only a few decades earlier, president Theodore Roosevelt was celebrated throughout the nation for his epic safari expeditions, which featured the slaughter of many animals that today are endangered. Roosevelt’s attitude toward animal rights was a seeming paradox: He had countless pets upon whom he endlessly doted and was an ardent conservationist, but he also enjoyed hunting and taxidermizing the exotic animals that he studied. At the time, the American public adored him for it, seeing no contradiction in creating the teddy bear to celebrate Roosevelt sparing an injured bear’s life and ignoring that he had delegated its execution to his hunting companion.

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Of course, hunting wild animals and injuring one’s own pets are quite different, at least in the minds of most people, but nevertheless the reality remains that Roosevelt was able to unironically present himself as an adorer of animals even as he built much of his image on butchering them. Johnson, who was also a hunter, could not display similar callousness toward animals in front of the prying public’s eyes without facing backlash.

Indeed, to some extent Johnson did benefit from the same image of macho-ness that Roosevelt cultivated: A day after the event, a pro-Johnson editorial in the Greensboro News and Record enthused, “Lyndon Johnson can get the ears of both beagles and businessmen, and make them like it.” Yet New York Times columnist Arthur Krock summed up an equally sizable chunk of opinion with the observation, “When the other day he lifted his pet beagle by the ears to please the news photographers he forgot the fundamental political fact that for everyone who might possibly love a news photographer, there are perhaps millions who unquestionably love a dog.”

To be fair, there is more to Johnson’s story than him simply being a clod when it came to dogs. While Johnson likely was extremely narcissistic, he was not a psychopath and genuinely enjoyed being around dogs. As a poor country boy in rural Texas, he regularly played with both his own dogs and stray dogs in his neighborhood. That is why Johnson was so excited when the litter of beagle puppies was born during his vice presidency, in the summer of 1963, and he enjoyed teaching children about the proper way to pet beagles. Johnson was surrounded by beagles during his presidency, including such vivid personalities as Edgar (bequeathed to him by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover) and Little Beagle (so named for obvious reasons).

Lest one thing Johnson only liked beagles, he famously befriended a stray mutt named Yuki (Japanese for “snow”) that had been picked up by one of his daughters. Johnson instantly identified with the dog and took him everywhere, even training him to sing on command and impressing the British Ambassador by howling in synchrony. Johnson’s connection with Yuki was so strong that after his presidency, he recorded a single called “LBJ: Dogs Have Always Been My Friends” where he admitted that he was worried Yuki’s original owner might one day find him.

“But I’m glad that the owner never missed him,” Johnson recalled, “because I surely would if he left me.”

If there is a lesson here, it is that people can sincerely love their dogs and still make mistakes as dog owners. In order to be a good dog owner, it is not enough to simply care for your dog; you have to listen to other people, some of whom know more about dogs, when they provide you with instructions about their welfare.

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