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U.S. President Barack Obama pets Bo, the First Dog, on March 15, 2012. The president and his pooch are similarly posed in the "Pet Lovers for Obama" Facebook photo. (Larry Downing / Reuters)
U.S. President Barack Obama pets Bo, the First Dog, on March 15, 2012. The president and his pooch are similarly posed in the "Pet Lovers for Obama" Facebook photo. (Larry Downing / Reuters)

The week

U.S. presidential politics: It's a dog-eat-dog world out there Add to ...

I confess: I have eaten guinea pig. I think this renders me unfit to win public office, although the chances of that ever happening were slim to begin with. In my defence, I was a child (not yet 30, in any case) and it was in the mountains of Peru, where guinea pig is not so much something you buy from a pet store as something you bake with a pepper in its mouth.

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At the time, I was surrounded by restaurants with names like Casa de Cuy (House of Guinea Pig), where baby fur-balls lolled under heat lamps to entice hungry passersby. You may wonder what guinea pig tastes like and I’ll tell you: It tastes like a squirrel that’s had a hard night on the town and died face-down in a gutter. Order the omelette instead.

Already I hear you retching over your Shreddies, and saying: How could you? Guinea pigs are so cute. And on this matter of cultural relativism we come to the President of the United States, who once, it seems, ate dog. This eating of dog – something he did in Indonesia when he was a child and wrote about in his memoir Dreams from My Father – has come to be a talking point in the nascent presidential election.

Yes, a bite of dog, that’s what they’re nattering about on Fox News. Not the increase in the use of food stamps in the U.S., or the fact that certain states want to remove women’s sovereignty over their own bodies.

“If you think eating dog is morally wrong, then President Obama is not on your side and he doesn’t get a pass because he was a child when he ate Fido,” claimed the conservative website Daily Caller, which tossed the first bone in this particular dog fight.

Mr. Obama’s former rival, Sen. John McCain, tweeted a picture of his son’s bulldog with the message, “Sorry Mr. President, he’s not on the menu!” Sarah Palin, the Diana of the Alaskan moose hunt, joined in the mockery on CNN. Four legs (with antlers) good; four legs (with collar) bad.

Eating dog is only morally wrong if you think that eating any animal flesh is wrong. There is, of course, a more nefarious instinct at work: To picture Barack Obama sitting at a table in the Indonesian jungle chowing down on a feast of terrier is to place him firmly in the camp of the people who aren’t comfortable at Denny’s; that is, the ones who don’t quite belong in America. Lest we forget, more than half of GOP voters in states like Mississippi are still convinced the president is a foreign-born Muslim.

Mr. Obama mentioned, in his book, that he had also eaten grasshopper and snake, but he could have eaten grasshopper pizza with stuffed-snake crust and no one would have cared. Dog alone holds an exalted place in the political cosmos and you mess with Rex at your peril.

Mitt Romney is still paying for the story of transporting his dog Seamus in a crate on the roof of the family car in 1983, although if I were ferrying that many children and an incontinent Irish Setter across the country you can bet at least one of them would be riding up top. There are 78-million dogs in America and each of those probably owns two people and each of those has one vote; the political power is great. The symbolic power is greater.

Richard Nixon perhaps owes his career to that speech he made about his daughters’ little black-and-white spaniel, Checkers, which proved he had a heart when the world suspected otherwise. George Bush got off one of his few good zingers when he claimed, “My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than those two bozos.”

The bozos were Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and Millie went on to write her own book, so maybe he was onto something. You have to admit Mr. Clinton knew a bit about affairs and even more about the power of the pooch: In the midst of a tempestuous period where he had to worry about turmoil in Bosnia and various bimbo eruptions, he distracted attention by holding a competition to name the new White House puppy. “Buddy” beat out contenders such as “Barkensas.” As one wit noted, Mr. Clinton finally had a friend in the White House.

It’s as if presidents adhere to the anti-W.C. Fields rule: Always act with dogs and children. Mr. Obama understands how to work an animal metaphor: Talking about choosing a dog, he said he preferred the ones that are “mutts like me.” In the end, because of their children’s allergies, the Obamas got a Portuguese water dog.

The President’s team recently sent out an announcement: “Tomorrow is Bo’s third anniversary as First Dog.” The accompanying Facebook page (“ Pet Lovers for Obama”) showed the President nose to nose with Bo. The message was clear: One nation, under dog, indivisible.

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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