President Obama may be a compassionate man but there was no lifesaving pardon for a house fly he deftly swatted dead during a White House interview with CNBC correspondent John Harwood on Tuesday, June 16. Life imitates art. You may recall the classic scene from The Magnificent Seven where an aging gunfighter, Lee (played by Robert Vaughn), swipes at two flies on the dinner table, catching one with his remarkable reflexes but lamenting that when he was younger, he would have caught both. Last week Obama was one-for-one with “Fly One” and with reflexes that sharp, no wonder the President is good on the basketball court.
According to AP, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is sending the President some kind of humane fly catcher device that in the future, will enable Obama to catch a fly and release it into the wild rather than killing it. (Good thing PETA wasn’t yet founded in 1970 when Yoko Ono made her art film, FLY, which featured a fly crawling about her naked body. Numerous flies were reportedly dosed with carbon dioxide to make them sluggish, then filmed one at a time as they crawled drunken-like on the cusp of their final journey to the dog-pile-in-the-sky.)
Obama’s Fly One incident is but the latest of several Presidential animal capers. I recently attended a San Diego lecture by language guru Richard Lederer who traced the origin of the term “teddy bear.” In 1902 President Teddy Roosevelt was hunting in the south and some fellow hunters cornered and tied up a black bear. They then encouraged the President to shoot it. Roosevelt deferred on the basis it would be unsporting, and a year or two thereafter a couple in Brooklyn began selling a stuffed “teddy’s bear.” With time it simply became shortened to “teddy bear.”
The troubled Presidency of Lyndon Johnson had one animal incident that would have turned PETA livid. In 1964, Johnson lifted his pet male beagle, Him, by the ears so Him could squeal for the press corps. Controversy ensued as LBJ was widely accused of animal cruelty. (Sadly, Him’s role as First Dog was ended prematurely two years later when he was reportedly run over by a car while chasing a squirrel on the White House grounds.)
Jimmy Carter provides two of the more interesting animal capers in Presidential history. On April 20, 1979, an apparently deranged swamp rabbit in Georgia tried to attack Carter’s fishing skiff although the President was able to ward off the beast with his paddle. Once again life imitates art. The media was quick to connect the Carter attack with the rabbit attack in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In 2005, Nobel Peace Prize winner Carter was interviewed by Jay Leno. The former President shared that he had accidentally hooked himself in the face while bass fishing. PETA was quick to call upon Carter to stop bass fishing, contending that killing gilled vertebrates is inconsistent with Carter’s humanitarian efforts.
Speaking of facial injuries, the W. Bush administration had the extraordinary caper where V.P. Cheney went bird hunting, and the birds won as Cheney shot his friend in the face. What about Bill Clinton? I can’t recall any off-the-wall animal stories during his Administration, but he did get in trouble with his fly instead of a fly, and with one meaning of the verb “to pet.” No report on whether Ms. Lewinsky sneaked into the White House wearing a teddy.