In the 1970s when I was eight, our family moved to Memphis, TN from New Jersey, a trip of over 1,000 miles.  We made the trip in a station wagon: two adults, three children, a dog, a cat, several rabbits (in portable hutches,) and some fish (yes, we took an aquarium in the car.)  And then the luggage, too.  While none of the animals (or the children) rode on top, our arrangements would probably give someone at the modern day National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hives.  Being the youngest, I sat on a fold-down armrest facing backwards between the two front seats where my mom and dad sat, something like this:

This allowed me to face the back seat where my brothers and the dog were so we could play games.  Of course it also set me up to catapult backwards head-first through the front windshield had there been an accident (no seat belt.)  Looking back, I marvel that my parents allowed this, especially since my own children now are seat-belted, car-seated, booster-seated, and otherwise safely anchored in their own seats surrounded by airbags.  But in a few decades, who knows?  My grown children might be wondering how we ever let them ride in a car without helmets and fireproof body suits as they strap their own children into their ejector seats.

Mitt Romney’s much discussed vacation with his family dog Seamus on the roof in a pet carrier was a decade later than our Memphis road trip, but still must be looked at in the context of an earlier era.  Romney has indicated that (especially given the reaction today) he would not do it the same way again. But consider this: when the Romney’s went on vacation, they took Seamus with them.  Many people leave their pets home, but their dog was enough a part of their family that they did not want to leave him behind.  And what do dogs like to do when riding in a car?  They love to put their heads out of the window.  Seamus got to ride on top!  Other dogs in passing cars were probably thinking, “He’s the luckiest dog on earth!”  When Seamus had his gastrointestinal distress (to put it delicately,) the Romneys stopped the car, cleaned him (and the car,) and then restored him to his place of privilege.  I know some will say that their pets are like children to them, but frankly the Romneys thought enough of their actual children to not cram a dog with the runs (to put it less delicately) into a station wagon packed with seven people and all their luggage.  What would that have said about their parenting priorities?

Who among us does not have a “can you believe we did that” memory?  But often those are the fondest memories families share.  Were Seamus still around and able to share his thoughts, I imagine the good memories would far outweigh the bad.  In any case, Mitt Romney has now been subjected to months of Seamus-related humor, which he has handled gracefully, but perhaps even a greater amount of overwrought denunciations of his character and judgment based on this harmless anecdote, also handled with grace.

And what of the other dog story in the campaign?  Although I have enjoyed and participated in the Obama-ate-a-dog joke feeding frenzy (sorry) on Twitter about President Obama’s childhood experience, context is of course important there as well.  Few are seriously trying to hold the president accountable for what he ate as a six- or seven-year old.  Some have pointed out that his inclusion of the story without a disclaimer in an autobiography written as an adult says something about the president’s values or perspective, but I find the mere fact that someone has written two autobiographical books by age 46 to be even more telling.  Politicians invite scrutiny, and if anything is fair game, an autobiography tops the list.

Political campaigns are a test of character, not just for the candidates, but for their supporters as well.  In 2008, the McCain campaign chose such a high road that they missed the opportunity to allow Barack Obama and his supporters to show the full range of their true colors.  The double-dog stories have said more about the two candidates backers than they have said about either Romney or Obama.  To paraphrase the president, his backers brought a dog story to the fight, so his opponents brought a better dog story.  In retrospect, perhaps the Democrats would have been wise to let sleeping dogs lie.

Jeryl Bier blogs at Speak With Authority

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