In the annals of presidential campaign coverage, I am an asterisk, and a tiny one at that – the journalist who unearthed the story of how Mitt Romney once drove to Canada with his dog Seamus in a carrier strapped to the roof of the family station wagon. In the nearly five years that have passed since I dug up that golden nugget, there’s been so much chatter about the anecdote that “Romney” and “dog” have become inseparable dance partners in Google searches entered around the world. (In just one sample week last month, that search snagged hundreds of fresh Web mentions.) Still, I have refrained from writing more about the Romneys’ Irish setter and his bout of highway-borne gastric distress. The reason? I dread the thought that Seamus might somehow make it into the lead paragraph of my eventual obituary.
Yet, here we are at the start of another primary season, with Romney once again awaiting the verdict from New Hampshire that could sink or propel the presidential ambitions he’s harbored at least since his father’s were dashed in 1968. And here we are, once again, watching the media and blogosphere – even the sober Wall Street Journal – fixate on Romney’s treatment of his dog nearly three decades ago. I’m wading in again because I’ve come to believe that the endurance of the Seamus story sheds fascinating light on our media and political cultures. Just as interesting is the light it sheds on Romney himself.
To recap: Sometime during a 12-hour drive from Boston to Canada in 1983, Mitt’s oldest son, Tagg, noticed a brown liquid running down the rear window of the family station wagon. Realizing the liquid was being discharged by their dog, Mitt pulled off the highway and into a gas station, borrowed a hose to wash down Seamus and the car, and then returned the dog to his rooftop carrier for the duration of the trip. Most media reports have accurately relayed those basics. However, exaggerations and faulty assumptions have been advanced, most notably by New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who has trotted out the ghost of poor Seamus in more than 30 of her pieces since 2007.
The exaggerations tend to be patently absurd, like the implication that Romney strapped his dog to the roof of his car with nothing more than rope, rather than in a carrier with a specially fashioned windshield. The assumptions, however, are more subtle, and therefore more believable, but just as untrue. For the record, neither Tagg nor any other Romney was my original source for the anecdote. Collins and others have pushed this silly line to suggest how tone-deaf the Romney brood must be. In fact, I went to the then 37-year-old Tagg only after having heard the Seamus story at the very end of a long interview with a close friend of the Romney family. Seeking to penetrate the stock image of the air-brushed family, I had asked that friend what stories the Romneys reminisced about in the privacy of their own home. As soon as the Seamus road trip anecdote passed his lips, I knew it was a gem. But I was determined to avoid a situation where Romney’s handlers could call into question the anecdote – or the entire article – because I had gotten some small detail wrong. So I insisted that Tagg poll his mother and brothers and persisted until I had confirmed every last fact. Far from being tone-deaf, Tagg realized as I dug deeper that the story could cause his father grief. Yet Tagg’s participation actually helped his dad. After all, the first version of the story I’d heard from the family friend – who hadn’t been an eyewitness – improbably had Mitt driving the station wagon right through a carwash. Imagine the howls from PETA if Seamus had been introduced to the world with the image of high-pressure wraparound brushes pummeling a defenseless, diarrheal dog.
Some commentators have complained that I failed to show sufficient animal-rights indignation when I ushered in the Seamus story. Although I wrote that the diarrhea was “payback from an Irish setter who’d been riding on the roof in the wind for hours,” I had deliberately tried to play the anecdote straight so readers could draw their own conclusions. Still, it was no accident that I had chosen to open the lengthy front-page story – part of an exhaustive 2007 series on Romney – with Seamus. Although I think it would be nuts for voters to base their presidential selection solely on this incident, it’s always struck me as a valuable window into how Romney operates. In everything the guy does, he functions on logic, not emotion.
To me, Romney’s critics have focused on the wrong part of the anecdote. It’s not that Romney put his dog on the roof. Remember how different standards were in 1983. Back then, I was a kid sloshing around in the cargo section of my family’s station wagon, competing with my equally unbuckled younger sister to see how many passing truck drivers we could get to pull their horns. I’ll take the Romneys at their word that Seamus loved his alfresco rides. Hell, my dog loves doing all kinds of things I don’t, chief among them luxuriating in the stink of other dogs’ duffs. What is beyond debate, though, is that this far into this particular trip, Seamus had ceased enjoying his ride. Faced with such irrefutable evidence, most people, I suspect, would have relented and let the ailing dog cram into the back of the wagon, even if logic dictated that cleaning up a repeat episode of his gastric distress would be a whole lot messier than if he were returned to the roof.
In his 2009 book, And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, Bill Wasik uses Seamus as a case study of what he terms “the nanostory,” something that generates intense media interest but then fades away. Partisans use political nanostories, he says, “to construct narratives that paint a dire picture of life under rule by the other side.” The Seamus story, he now admits, hung on longer than he expected, though lately the context has been more media than politics. Wasik, an editor at Wired magazine, predicts the Seamus citations will become more political and more plentiful if Romney becomes the GOP nominee, as President Obama partisans use it to paint Romney as a cruel character who, as Wasik puts it, will “sort of tie us all to the roof of the car.”
I think another reason for the story’s endurance is that Romney remains an enigma, the product of two of the most mysterious and least understood subcultures in the country: the Mormon Church and private-equity finance. So Seamus has become a shortcut for people trying to get a bead on a candidate whose image has shades of ageless businessman and Stepford husband. Ironically, behind the scenes, Romney showcases a sharp, agile mind. But when he’s engaged in retail politics before rolling cameras, he can seem as maladroit as he was during his first campaign back in 1994, when he approached a reluctant woman on the street to shake hands and said, “I know, you haven’t got your makeup on yet, right?” (Dumbfounded, she replied, “I do!”) His awkward moments this campaign have included sidling up to a crusty older veteran in a New Hampshire diner and inveighing against gay marriage, only to learn later that the man’s husband was sitting across from him. The more Romney’s handlers try to control his environment and prevent him from going off script, the more people will hunt for flashes of unscripted behavior, whether that involves clumsy conversations with voters or the ham-fisted handling of a distressed dog half a lifetime ago.
If he’s not careful, I won’t be the only person who has to worry about Seamus making it into the lead paragraph of his obit someday.
Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.