I’m as fierce a dog lover as you’re likely to find, and I believe — scratch that, I know — that my own dog, Regan, is perfect. I don’t take kindly to suggestions otherwise, and a part of me can’t believe that any inconvenience she might pose to someone else matters as much as the joy I get from her.
But the rest of me is a grown-up. And it struggles with how President Biden and his family handled their German shepherd Commander, who should have been a balm to a man with such grueling business.
As you may have read or heard, Commander didn’t bite just one person. Or two people. Or five. Or 10. According to records obtained by Judicial Watch, a conservative, um, watchdog group, and a subsequent update of its tally, Commander bit at least 11 people, including Secret Service agents, though unnamed sources have told journalists that the biting incidents were even more numerous and more serious than that. The Times and other news organizations have reported that one agent was taken to a hospital for treatment.
Last week, after Commander had spent nearly two years hanging around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the first lady’s office announced that he had finally been moved to another, undisclosed address. Did it have to come to this?
The White House hasn’t volunteered much information, so no one has definitive answers — about the extent of training that Commander did or didn’t receive, about the range of efforts to help him adapt to an environment tenser and more confusing than a dog’s usual digs.
But I have theories. I have observations, based on a close read of the situation, a lifetime of dog adoration and a familiarity with Biden’s biography, his temperament and what the presidency is like.
The trouble, I suspect, was a star-crossed pairing: a man who really needed a dog at this stressful juncture of his life and a dog who really needed circumstances less stressful than those that the man provided.
Biden obviously didn’t want to reckon with that contradiction. Maybe his reluctance reflected a highhanded dismissiveness about the safety and sanity of agents in his security detail and of people on the White House staff. Maybe he was distracted: A president has a few other items on his agenda.
Or maybe someone who holds what is arguably the highest office in the world, with all its perks and all its sacrifices, couldn’t accept that what so many other people experience with so much less difficulty — the pleasure, the solace, the loyalty of a canine companion — was proving unavailable to him. Maybe that just didn’t seem fair.
I should have written that a cherished dog’s companionship was proving unavailable to Biden yet again: Two years ago, he sent away Major, another German shepherd who bit at least two people. In one sense, that history makes his indulgence of Commander doubly damning: Hadn’t Biden learned his lesson? But it could also be why he held on. He has suffered profound losses in his personal life. How many more goodbyes must he say?
I’m not excusing his behavior. I’m just trying to explain it. Part of the problem may be his special affection for German shepherds, whose formidable intelligence and keen watchfulness make White House life — with its large cast of characters, its security protocols, its frequent whirl — a challenging fit.
“German shepherds are wonderful dogs, but they’re not my favorite patients,” Karen Fine, a veterinarian who wrote the best-selling 2023 memoir “The Other Family Doctor,” told me. She explained that their vigilance and their sensitivity to unexpected stimuli and unfamiliar body language can make them leery.
“They’re constantly evaluating a situation,” Fine said. “A Lab is like, ‘What did you have for lunch? There are crumbs on your clothes!’ A German shepherd is looking at your body movements.” The White House, she added, may be “too much to ask of a shepherd.”
Generalizations about breeds are just that — generalizations. There can be as much diversity within one breed as among different breeds. And if German shepherds are notably sensitive, they’re also notably trainable, which is why they’re so commonly used as service dogs.
When I lived in the Detroit area three decades ago, my romantic partner and I had a German shepherd, Moya, who knew and unfailingly obeyed the full array of classic dog commands in both English and German. That was a thing with some breeders, and the one who gave us Moya when she was about 9 months old had already trained her so well that I could take her with me on long runs on suburban sidewalks and not leash her (though I almost always did, to be safe). She kept to my side and kept perfect pace with me. No squirrel, no stranger, no Frisbee could compete with her deference and her discipline.
Did the Bidens get Commander the right training? Did they do it early enough? Nick White, a professional dog trainer who worked in the Secret Service for several years, guesses that they didn’t.
“You need to get your dog out and socialize them — get them around as many people as possible, around as many different looks of people as possible: men, women, Indian Americans, African Americans,” White, who owns and runs Off Leash K9 Training, a nationwide company, told me.
Dogs bound for busy settings should be exposed, as puppies, to as much variety as possible, to “people with hats, people with sunglasses, people in wheelchairs — so that there’s no picture the dog hasn’t seen,” White said. He has taken puppies he has trained to The Home Depot, to Times Square. He said that he wants there to be nothing that jars and rattles them.
Commander’s biting suggests a lack of such socialization, White said. Regardless, he said, it should not have been allowed to go on for so long. Commander should have been removed from a setting that obviously triggered him, enrolled in an immersive program and then slowly and gradually reintegrated into White House life.
“No dog should have 11 bites,” White said. “I personally can’t think of a client off the top of my head over 15 years of business who has said, ‘Hey, my dog has bit 11 people,’ if that gives you some perspective. I’ve heard two. I’ve heard three. Commander is the first I’ve heard of where, oh, he’s bit 11 people.”
White added: “The biggest misstep in my opinion that President Biden made is deciding to get a new dog when you’re becoming president of the United States. If somebody says to me, ‘Hey, Nick, you’re going to be president of the United States next year,’ I’m not going to say, ‘Hey, let’s have a new baby.’”
That’s wise. Fair. There’s no denying that Biden failed the people around him. He failed Commander.
But when I look, through the eyes of someone whose own dog means the world to him, at photos of Commander with the president on a couch, of Commander with the president on the beach, I see Biden relishing a kind of peace that’s an antidote to and antithesis of the fury over border crossings, the insults about his age, Donald Trump’s incitements, Hunter Biden’s ordeal, the specter of our democracy slipping away from us.
I see a man known to radiate a gooey and goofy warmth having it replenished. And I’m just plain sad for both of them.
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For the Love of Sentences
What is bad for the House of Representatives has been good for prose, starting with Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal, who described House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s toppling by Matt Gaetz and his fellow right-wing rebels this way: “It’s as if Julius Caesar were stabbed to death in the Forum by the Marx Brothers.” (Thanks to Leo Orenstein of Bethesda, Md., for flagging Noonan’s column.)
In his Substack newsletter Eight by Seven, Timothy Burke offered this take: “I’ve never been in the passenger seat of a car driven by a suicidal person under the influence of hallucinogens, but like the majority of Americans, I’m beginning to get a good sense of what that might feel like.” (Norman Ramsey, Malden, Mass.)
In The Florida Times-Union, Nate Monroe chimed in: “These Trump derivatives — from Gaetz to Ron DeSantis to Marjorie Taylor Greene — are simply not all that interesting. None of them are the complete package: DeSantis inherited Trump’s sense of grievance; Gaetz his knack for performance; Greene his lizard-brained lunacy. Cast them into a witch’s brew and you might get Trump’s true essence, but individually they’re merely his backwash.” (Richard A. Salkin, Neptune Beach, Fla.)
And in The Times, Carl Hulse observed: “For Mr. McCarthy, who practiced a management style of doing and saying pretty much whatever it would take to get through the day, tomorrow finally arrived.” (Judah Ginsberg, Chicago, and Osita Abana, Atlanta, among others)
Speaking of bedlam, that second Republican presidential debate two weeks ago yielded a similar literary bounty. Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker singled out a transparently scripted bit of DeSantis’s performance: “Of his plans to expand domestic oil drilling, DeSantis said, ‘We’re going to choose Midland over Moscow. We’re going to choose the Marcellus over the Mullahs. We’re going to choose the Bakken over Beijing.’ Stop this man before he alliterates again.” (Thanks to Jock McFarlane of Skillman, N.J., for flagging that.)
And in a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal, Edward J. Gallagher wrote: “The participants reminded me of different breeds of dogs in a local kennel — wide-eyed, adrenaline-juiced, standing on their hind legs, rapidly wagging tails a blur, trying to out-bark each other in a frantic quest to be chosen for their forever home.” (Mark Hochstetler, Novato, Calif.)
In The Washington Post, Philip Bump lamented the difficulty of injecting truth into the closed universe of fiction and distortion that is Fox News: “What else can we do but sit here outside of it, attempting to convey reality like we’re dropping leaflets into North Korea?” (Donna Silver, Madison, Wis.)
In The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich puzzled over a new strain of electronic music. “Attempting to define vaporwave is sort of humiliating: like most web-based phenomena, it deploys an idiosyncratic grammar that remains mostly inscrutable to anyone who has recently gone outside,” she wrote. (Maura Kealey, San Francisco)
In The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., Josh Shaffer bemoaned a seasonal nuisance: “Of all the world’s intolerable noises, none can match the shriek of a gas-powered leaf blower — the unholy contraption that interrupts autumn with its daylong caterwaul.” (Ed Holland, Durham, N.C.)
In The Times, Jenna Wortham relived the Beyoncé concerts that she attended over the summer, noting that the closer her seats were to the goddess herself, the less people moved: “Instead, they absorbed the full force of her with their entire bodies, not unlike opening the oven to check on a roast and feeling your eyebrows singe a little.” (Kate Kavanagh, Concord, Mass.)
And Jason Bailey endorsed the actress Emma Thompson’s righteous pique over the word “content.” “In practical terms, ‘content creator’ neatly accomplishes two things at once: It lets people who make garbage think they’re making art, and tells people who make art that they’re making garbage,” he wrote. (Mary Reddy, Langley, Wash.)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here and include your name and place of residence.
On a Personal Note
One of the most read articles on The Times’s website the weekend before last was Noam Scheiber’s examination of a Harvard professor accused of manipulating and falsifying data. That surprised me somewhat.
I hedge with “somewhat” because “Harvard” is often catnip to readers, and “Harvard” coupled with a hint of scandal is doubly seductive: When the mighty falter, people perk up. But Scheiber’s admirable investigation focused, as it had to, on social science experiments and study designs and columns of data — not the stuff that readers usually flock to, not Trump on his latest rampage or Taylor cheering for Travis from the Mount Olympus of a stadium skybox. So why the fascination?
I think because the article focused on alleged bad behavior in an ecosphere not typically associated with that. We expect dirty tricks in politics. We expect corner cutting in corporate America. We expect gross exaggerations from salespeople, and we expect runaway vanity from television, movie and music stars.
But from faculty? In academia? They’re — we’re — often seen as a noble sort, having chosen a line of work with less remuneration than many other occupations offer. We’re putatively devoted to learning, teaching, ideas. So a portrait of professors jockeying for celebrity and possibly taking liberties en route to it comes as a surprise.
It shouldn’t. And I say that not because I’ve seen anything untoward or been privy to dark secrets since taking a job at Duke more than two years ago. I say that because humans are humans, no matter the vocation. Our follies and flaws follow us wherever we go, the worst as well as the best of us showing up in all corners of society. No sector has a monopoly on blinding ambition. No trade corners the market on greed.
Or on deception. The first book I wrote, published in 1993, was about child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and one of the many bitter morals of that story was that a religious institution, ostensibly dedicated to goodness, could and did act just like a Fortune 500 company when threatened with the sullying of its image and the depletion of its coffers. “Men of God” protected molesters and vilified victims in a shortsighted and disastrous cover-up.
There is no professional accessory — not a cleric’s collar, not a physician’s stethoscope, not the sash worn by a college dean on graduation day — that saves us from our sins. We don different uniforms. We battle the same demons.