All the Presidents' Pets
The Story of One Reporter Who Refused to Roll Over
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All the Presidents’ Men meets Charlotte’s Web in an explosive political exposé that blows the lid off a long-held secret in Washington: The Presidents’ pets are more than just furry photo ops.
How much does the public really know about the role of the President?
Does the White House Press Corps really understand it?
Does the President himself have a clue?
All the Presidents’ Pets is the long-awaited, spine-tingling, muckraking blockbuster from political and pop culture commentator Mo Rocca—a tour de force of investigative reporting that for the first time tells the true story of who really runs America.
From George Washington’s donkey, Royal Gift, and Rutherford B. Hayes’s Siamese cat, Miss Pussy, to Lincoln’s goats, Nanny and Nanko, and John Kennedy’s Welsh terrier, Charlie, each has left an indelible mark on the White House. (In fact, Eisenhower’s Weimaraner, Heidi, did leave a terrible stain on the Diplomatic Reception Room carpet. She was promptly exiled to Ike’s Gettysburg farm.) In All the Presidents’ Pets, Rocca lays bare the true stories of our nation’s First Pets and sheds light on the origins and evolution of presidential power.
Rocca plumbs rare sources, with the assistance of veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas (the Stefanie Powers to his Robert Wagner), for the poop—er, scoop—on what really goes on in the West Wing. Once Helen reveals her deepest, darkest secret, the story turns dangerous. Filled with revelations and news breaks—and an unforgettable cast, including Wolf Blitzer, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, and a terrifying albino named Gephardt (no relation)—this is yet another story that the complacent Washington press corps missed.
Forget Paul O’Neill. Richard Clarke? Who’s that? All the Presidents’ Pets is the groundbreaking political book that Bob Woodward could have written had he just spent a little less time with the President and a little more time with Barney.
“Some will consider this satire. Mo Rocca describes how U.S. political policy has been guided by presidential pets for more than two hundred years. Oh, and I suppose you have a better explanation?” —P. J. O’Rourke
“All the Presidents’ Pets is a deeply probing, thoroughly engaging account about how the media has uniformly overlooked the White House pet phenomenon to the detriment of our national memory. Thanks to Mo Rocca, no serious political commentator can properly analyze the Bush Administration without taking into consideration ‘The Barney Factor.’ And, for good measure, he has broken the story of Helen Thomas’s lair, a cosmic revelation that will force historians to reinterpret presidencies dating as far back as James Garfield’s tenure.”—Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History and Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies, University of New Orleans
“A freaky, phantasmagoric trip through the secret history of presidential pets.”—Robert Siegel, former editor in chief of The Onion
; October 2004
257 pages; ISBN 9781400097579
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Title: All the Presidents' Pets
Author: Mo Rocca
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Strangeness on a Train
The Acela Express between Washington and New York launched its maiden voyage in the fall of 2000 as a high-speed alternative to the poky, college-student-infested Amtrak train. With their double-espressos, laptops, and New York Times in hand, politicians, lobbyists, newscasters, and pundits flocked to the express service like it was the Concorde in its heyday, praising its ease and speed. Forget about the Delta Shuttle. After 9/11 no one was allowed to walk through the aisles once the plane was in the air, so it was impossible to network.
Because of its state-of-the-art everything (outlets at every seat!), the silver-and-turquoise bullet train quickly became a schmoozefest on wheels, a veritable kissass-ela. “It’s so European!” gushed GOP leader-turned-lobbyist Dick Armey to Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank. Across from them in a four-seater, columnist Tina Brown fawned over freshman congressman Ryan Seacrest. “How do you do it all?” she asked him. And in between cars, leggy conservative pundette Laura Ingraham canoodled in the shadows with pint-sized Clinton cabinet secretary Robert Reich—strange bedfellows indeed but on the Acela they shared one important trait: these powerbrokers were all arriving in Washington a full fifteen minutes faster than the lowly schmucks stuck on the Metroliner.
The Acela was especially busy the last time I took it. I wasn’t en route to an assignment, though. My trip was the assignment, part of my current gig on MSNBC, also known as the Michelle Kwan of the twenty-four-hour cable news channels. (No matter how hard it tried, it always seemed to land on its ass.)
I wore a fake mustache and took my position behind the counter of the café car. It was the latest in my series of undercover reports focusing on different service jobs, appropriately called “Pressure”—and appropriately accompanied by the Billy Joel song “Pressure,” or, as the singer pronounced it, “Preshah!” Each segment featured me thrown into a different job, wearing a different disguise each time. As a furniture mover I got to wear a soul patch. As a mohel I wore payos.
The segment was part of MSNBC’s latest experiment in primetime news, Hard Time with Jim Traficant, starring the flamboyant former Ohio congressman and convict with the Davy Crockett hairpiece. From prison Jim had seen me on TV and become a fan. When MSNBC approached him, he demanded I join the ensemble. “You get me that Mo. He works my funnybone real good.”
Unfortunately Hard Time was scheduled against the mighty Bill O’Reilly. If O’Reilly and his two million viewers occupied a no-spin zone at the nucleus of cable news, we were a negatively charged speck in the outermost valence shell.
This was hardly the kind of work I envisioned when as a boy I dreamed of covering presidential politics. It was humbling, to say the least. (Only moments earlier C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb had gone ballistic on me for overheating his Sara Lee cheese Danish. “You’re supposed to poke a hole in the plastic before you nuke it, retard!” he shouted.) To make matters worse I was saddled with a 315-pound cameraman named Phil, who spent most of the day on his cell phone, strategizing with the other co-plaintiffs from his never-ending class action obesity suit against McDonald’s. “You heard it here first, girlfriend. Our payday is coming!” he screamed into his phone that morning. If I tried to get sharp with him, he only threw it back in my face, reminding me of his own glory days. “When Morley interviewed Betty Ford, guess who did the light-meter reading,” he gloated.
But like it or not, Phil was my cameraman, and I needed his cooperation if I was ever going to prove that I was worthy of a meatier assignment. I picked up a copy of the Washington Post I’d been keeping behind the counter. “Hey, Phil, did you know that Amtrak requested $1.82 billion in federal assistance last year?”
Phil didn’t hear me. He was polishing off a pack of peanut M&M’s and staring at the café car TV, which was tuned to CNN.
Earlier that day, President Bush had once again dropped his dog Barney, this time at a gathering of Hispanic businesswomen. (It had happened once before, at an airfield in Waco.) It didn’t seem like a particularly remarkable event—and playing it over and over didn’t make it more so. In fact the only thing that was remotely interesting was the split-second startled look on Bush’s face before he dropped the Scottie. But Phil didn’t notice that.
“Poor doggie,” he whimpered. I tried again to get his attention.
“So anyway, Amtrak requested over $1.8 billion and yet its on-time record continued to decline.”
“And?” Phil snapped without looking at me.
“And that’s pretty outrageous,” I said defensively. “This is the story we should look into.” Phil finally turned to me with a look one-quarter compassionate, three-quarters belittling that read, “You sad deluded clown. You really think they want you to be a real reporter?” But before I could respond, a woman’s voice piped in.
“And yet it’s still faster than the shuttle door to door. How are you, cutie?” My cover was blown, by none other than CBS’s Lesley Stahl, a former network “colleague.”
“Hey, Les,” I said, forcing a casual smile, then remembering it was no use pretending I wasn’t embarrassed. I was wearing a fake mustache.
“Don’t you ‘Hey, Les’ me, Mr. Adorable Café Club Car Undercover Agent, you! Give me a hug!!” I awkwardly hugged Lesley over the counter. “I’d kiss you but your sexy Magnum, P.I. mustache might burn me! And, Phil, what on earth are you doing shooting for CABLE?!” The way she shrieked “cable” made me want to put my head in the microwave.
Phil seized the chance to take a swipe at me. “Helping the needy,” he sneered.
Lesley threw her head back with a laugh. “We really miss you at the network, honey,” she said to me, grabbing my hand. She couldn’t resist adding, “But cable allows you to focus on hard news. No fluff here.” She and Phil both cackled.
There was no denying I looked silly. Then again, Lesley was wearing a pink leather jacket, miniskirt, and spike heels. Was she off to cover a rumble between the Sharks and the Jets?
“So what’s going on in D.C.?” Phil asked her, hoping that she might sweep him off to an interview with some visiting head of state.
“The anniversary of Chandra Levy’s disappearance,” she said, suddenly somber.
“60 Minutes?” Phil asked.
Lesley quickly changed the subject—she must have been shooting for 48 Hours. She looked up at the menu. “Mo, sweetie, tell me about this Maine lobster wrap ‘enhanced with lemon mustard aioli, complemented by crisp cabbage slaw.’ Very fancy-sounding.” By the time she finished reading she was leaning almost over the counter, one leg, bent at the knee, sexily kicked up behind her.
“Well, let’s see,” I said, fumbling with one of the sandwiches. “It looks like the lobster is wrapped in some sort of a fennel tortilla with—”
“Why am I asking you?” she kidded, grabbing my collar and pulling my ear right up to her lips. “You’re not a food reporter, Maurice,” she cooed, using my birth name. “You’re an investigative reporter!” I’d just about had it with Lesley’s Mrs. Robinson routine when her cell phone rang and she pushed me away to grab it. “It’s Andrew calling! Must be important.” She wanted me to believe it was CBS News president Andrew Heyward, but of course I knew it was Andy Rooney. She covered the phone for a second. “Sorry, boys, but I have to take this. It’s the network.” And she was gone in an instant, the clicking of her heels receding down the aisle of the café car.
“Isn’t she amazing?” Phil said dreamily.
“Amazing,” I said, through clenched teeth.