Unlike his predecessor, President Biden recognizes a heartwarming photo op when he sees one and has been known to deploy his dogs as campaign props. I am confident of our new president’s genuine warmth and humanity, but I’m not so sure it’s fair to assume that sharing a home with a companion animal is always the sign of a good person. President Vladimir Putin of Russia, after all, is frequently photographed snuggling with dogs.
On the other hand, I do believe that dogs can make us better people if we are open to what they can teach us.
From Clark, the mixed-breed ultrashedder who helped us raise our children, I learned that loyalty and love will always matter more than a tidy house and unchewed shoes. From Emma, the dachshund-shaped comedian we inherited when my mother died unexpectedly, I learned that laughter can come very close to healing a broken heart. From sweet, grateful Millie, the traumatized terrier mix we adopted two and a half years ago, I learned that love will never erase the memory of cruelty, but also that love and patience and time, together, can sometimes make up for it.
In time, I know, we will find another rescue dog who needs us and whom we need, but that dog will not replace any of the others we have lost. I carry them all with me, always. Even when the grief eases and the house no longer echoes with absence, I will carry them with me. That’s the nature of being changed: For both good and bad, you remember what you learned.
If we are wise, our country, too, will remember the pain of the wrecking-ball presidency we barely survived. We will remember what it cost us in civic trust, in the connection of community, in human lives. But if we are lucky, we will also move into the future with hope in what the new White House dogs represent.
It would be wrong to reduce Champ and Major to symbols. It is enough for them to be loyal companions and reliable comforts to a good man doing the hardest job in the world at a terrible time in history. For us, too, it is enough to know, as Jennifer Finney Boylan put it, “that the decisions he makes have been guided, in at least some small measure, by the tenderness and grace of dogs.”
But perhaps it’s not entirely wrong for Champ and Major to give us hope that compassion and kindness and loyalty and love have truly returned to the People’s House. And to hope it’s not too late for them to return to the nation, too.
Margaret Renkl is a contributing Opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South. She is the author of “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, At Last: And Other Essays From The New York Times.”