Why So Few White House Cats? Most Presidents Mirror the Extroverted Personalities of Dogs

From a Washington Post story by Bonnie Berkowitz about White House cats:

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden have said they plan to add a rare first feline to their White House family, which already includes dogs Champ and Major.

Presidential pet history is too imprecise for an exact count, but it appears that only about a dozen cats have padded through the White House, compared with more than 100 dogs. . . .

Here’s a peek at the day-to-day lives of some previous White House cats.

Theodore Roosevelt’s six-toed cat, Slippers, could often be found in the kitchen. Herbert Hoover’s Persian, Kitty, roamed the corridors. But many cats stayed mostly in the family’s residence on the second and third floors.

That meant White House residence staff encountered the cats far more often than people who worked in more bustling areas of the building.

Amy Carter’s Siamese, Misty Malarky Ying Yang, tended to hide under skirted furniture, especially at night, said longtime chief usher Gary J. Walters in an email. “When we would go to turn out the lights on the second floor, the cat would shoot out from underneath the chairs or sofas and scare us.”

But cats often had the run of the White House if they wanted, including the most famous presidential feline, Socks, Chelsea Clinton’s ultra-sociable black-and-white shorthair.

“Socks was something of a celebrity for cat lovers around the world,” said Jennifer Pickens, author of several inside-the-White House books including “Pets at the White House.” He was an Internet star long before Grumpy Cat, and he became the subject of books, an animated White House tour and even a series of postage stamps issued by the Central African Republic.

Socks spent his first days in the White House mostly in the usher’s office, lounging on a window heater next to the desk, Walters said, and every morning Bill Clinton stopped in to see him on his way to the Oval Office. Eventually Socks found toasty perches around the house, including near the basement furnace in winter.

But his primary daytime roost was just outside the Oval Office, where he had access to a dish of butterscotch candy and at least one human willing to cuddle, Betty Currie, Clinton’s personal secretary. . . .

But for entrances, it would be hard to beat the Carter cat, Misty Malarky.

Three weeks into Jimmy Carter’s presidency, he and first lady Rosalynn hosted a state dinner for Mexican President José López Portillo, and Washington insiders were eager to see how the Carters’ no-frills vibe would mesh with the traditionally ultra-formal occasion.

As the two presidents appeared at the top of the Grand Staircase, ready to descend toward the black-tie event in the East Room, the Marine Band began to play, the press waited expectantly — and down the stairs padded Misty Malarky “in the spotlight the whole way,” recounted first lady Rosalynn Carter in her autobiography. “I don’t know who was more surprised — the guests, the press, me, or Misty.”

When the cat encountered the laughing gaggle of press and guests at the bottom of the stairs, she turned around and skittered back up, again stealing the show from the presidents, who at that point were on their way down. . . .

First families can be as involved or uninvolved with daily pet logistics as they’d like, because the residence staff is always there to help. Walters said that in his experience with the Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush cats, staff members usually emptied the cat boxes, but “everyone available” got roped into feeding duty at one time or another. . . .

Walters said that “for the most part,” cats did little damage — no major shredding or scratching that he knew of — but he vividly recalled one incident involving claws.

He first encountered Misty Malarky on Inauguration Day in 1977, when, as an assistant usher, he was tasked with transporting the Carters’ belongings from Blair House, where they’d stayed the night before, to the White House.

“When I walked into Blair House, the manager said, ‘Great, now that cat is your problem,’ ” Walters said. As he carried Misty outside, the cat was startled by the crowds that filled the street and “attached himself to me with his claws.” He walked across the street to the White House with Misty plastered to the front of his overcoat. . . .

Socks, the Clinton cat, often strolled the grounds with one human or another — including the president — attached to a 30-foot leash. Author Pickens said he even had a favorite tree, a pin oak that was planted by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Once, he reportedly chased a bird up a tree and was nearly strangled by the leash before the Secret Service rescued him.

In addition to prowling the lawn, Socks was so friendly and easygoing that he sometimes accompanied first lady Hillary Clinton to events and occasionally showed up in the White House pressroom. . . .

Some seemed to tolerate their canine housemates, such as India (a.k.a. Willie), who traveled with George W. Bush’s Scottish terriers Barney and Miss Beazley to Camp David and even deigned to pose for photos in holiday attire with them. . . .

The Carters kept Misty Malarky as far as possible from their sons’ animals, especially a parakeet and a dog named J.B., according to the White House Historical Association. Misty also reportedly contributed to shortening the White House tenure of a border collie puppy, Grits, who had been given to Amy by a teacher but was soon returned.

When Bill Clinton introduced Socks to his new chocolate lab puppy, Buddy, on the White House lawn, it was hate at first sight, and relations never improved.

At end of his term, Clinton told CNN, “You know, I did better with the Arabs, the Palestinians and the Israelis, than I’ve done with Socks and Buddy.” Days later, Clinton left office and Socks moved to Maryland with Currie.

Shan, the Ford cat, had a similar reaction to the introduction of golden retriever Liberty, according to a 1974 New York Times story. A professional trainer hired to spend a month getting the new dog acclimated said the two were “at a standoff,” which was probably really unpleasant for Susan Ford, because the story also said both animals slept in her bedroom.

Shan also hated men, except for the president, according to a 1975 wire story quoted in Pickens’s book. “No other male, not even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, has established any more of a détente with Shan than has Liberty,” the story said. . . .

Why have there been so few first felines?

A bit of the disparity may be attributable to cat allergies, which are twice as common as dog allergies. Caroline Kennedy’s gray cat, Tom Kitten, was the first of many Kennedy pets to move into the White House, but John F. Kennedy’s allergies soon required that either he or Tom live elsewhere, so the kitty moved in with the family of Jackie Kennedy’s personal secretary, Mary Gallagher, in Alexandria.

It could also have something to do with the personalities of cats, and of presidents.

“It seems to me that dogs would, on average, be better suited than cats to travel, moving from place to place within the White House, and amenable to the constant comings and goings of various people,” said Sam Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas who has studied animal personalities. Dogs, he said, would be “essentially a more flexible and tolerant companion.”

Gosling also delved into human personalities in a 2009 study that looked at traits of self-identified “dog people” or “cat people.” The differences were small but statistically significant.

He found that those who considered themselves “dog people” tended to be more extroverted, dominant, agreeable, and more pragmatic than philosophical — traits also shared by many U.S. presidents.

Comment: The Washington Post headline on the White House cats story is “”Who scoops the litter box? Answers about the mysterious lives of White House cats.” A headline that had to be written by an editor who hates cats.

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