There was a nice, heartwarming photo yesterday of George H.W. Bush’s service dog lying by his casket. This was accorded the usual sniffling interpretation, which is fine: the image is moving. Nonetheless, Slate felt it necessary to publish “Don’t Spend Your Emotional Energy on Sully H.W. Bush/He’s a service dog who had been with the president for six months, not his lifelong companion.”
“It’s wonderful for Bush that he had a trained service animal like Sully available to him [for 6] months. It’s a good thing that the dog is moving on to another gig where he can be helpful to other people (rather than becoming another Bush family pet). But it’s a bit demented to project soul-wrenching grief onto a dog’s decision to lie down in front of a casket. Is Sully “heroic” for learning to obey the human beings who taught him to perform certain tasks? Does the photo say anything special about this dog’s particular loyalty or judgment, or is he just … there? Also, if dogs are subject to praise for obeying their masters, what do we do about the pets who eat their owners’ dead (or even just passed-out) bodies?…”
Oh, thank you, thank you SO much for that lovely image.
Of course the dog doesn’t understand that Bush is dead, or that he’s in the casket, or anything. So what? Anyone who knows anything about dogs can figure that out. Why was this snark necessary?
There have, in fact, been cases where dogs showed touching devotion after an owner’s demise. One horrible example is Hachiko, an Akita that continued to sit in the same place, at the same time, at a Japanese railway station waiting for his master to come home for nine years, not knowing he had died unexpectedly at work and would never return. There is a movie about this true story, and a more depressing film it is hard to imagine. Eventually a statue was erected to the dog at the station.
No, Sully isn’t displaying the same devotion, and really, why should anyone care? If the image of a dead man’s dog lying by his casket provides comfort, or solace, or closure, or any emotion at all, why its it necessary to immediately explain that it’s really hogwash? Believing that the dog misses his master harms nobody at all. And, you know, maybe he does.
I immediately thought of this iconic photo…
It is usually described as John Kennedy, Jr., on his third birthday, saluting his assassinated father’s casket as it passed by. The touching image was put on the cover of magazines and front pages. No journalist then had the bad taste to point out what was, or should have been obvious: the child had no idea what was going on. He didn’t understand death. he didn’t know his father was in that casket, and he certainly didn’t know he was about to be buried and he’d never see him again. Maybe his mother, Jackie Kennedy, said “Salute your father.” Maybe he was really saluting the soldiers, as he had seen his father do. Does it matter? The image encapsulated the nation’s grief.
The more I think about John John and Sully, the more I think that it’s one of those situations where the advice of the old newspaper editor at the end of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” applies: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”