George McGovern and man’s best friend

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This weekend, George McGovern passed away at a hospice in South Dakota, his beloved home state.

When I heard this, I remembered reading a piece  in The Washington Post 30 years ago that is especially poignant now that the senator’s life has come to an end.  It was written by McGovern and was titled, “The Life and Death of a Family Friend.”  The column was about the family dog, Atticus, a Newfoundland, and the ups and downs of his 13 years on this planet. Atticus was very popular with the press.  He worked his way into a column by the famed Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory.  And, for a moment or two, some thought Atticus might make a good running mate for McGovern in the 1972 presidential race.

Here’s George McGovern’s column about Atticus from The Washington Post  published on February 7, 1982:

“The Life and Death of a Family Friend”  by George McGovern

Atticus was his name, given to him by my 14 year-old daughter, Mary, who admired Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s great novel. “To Kill A Mockingbird.” I hope that the creator of the admirable Atticus Finch will not mind too much that Mary gave his name to our dog, a big, black Newfoundland who lived with us for nearly 13 years. My wife Eleanor and Mary found him as a immensely clumsy and totally untrained puppy in a suburban pet store. We had just acquired the beautiful Japanese-style home built by Judge and Mrs. David Bazelon. When we moved into that house, so carefully constructed and maintained by the Bazelons, there wasn’t a blemish or a smudge to be foundAtticus changed all of that. He loved that house, showing his appreciation for the first few weeks by a strong preference for sprinkling its floors rather than going outside. I reacted violently at times to this uncivilized behavior, but in due course, Atticus became trained and from then on his worst offense against the house was to share some of his heavy black coat with nearly every square foot of the floor and some of the furniture.Atticus offered more than an occasional patch of hair; he worked his way into the affections of all of us.From the beginning he insisted on being where the people were—in the house, indeed in the very room and as close to the feet as possible of any member of the family who was home.Eleanor had arranged for the construction of a rather elegant doghouse behind our house. But no amount of human effort or patience could force him to accept that doghouse. He rejected it from the outset, never ceasing his barking no matter how long we tried to wait him out. We finally relented and he became a lifelong in-house dog.He not only roamed the house during the day, following Eleanor from room to room, he insisted on sleeping in our bedroom as close as he could press to my side of the bed.Atticus loved riding in the car. He could tell whether we were preparing for a trip to our country house or a routine departure for the office or the grocery store. When he saw signs that we were getting things ready for a trip to the country, he would not relax until he was certain that he was to go along.

When he was disciplined by a sharp verbal rebuke for something he had done or refused to do, he would head for the door and lie quietly in the grass until the anger of the person had subsided and his hurt feelings had healed. The, when he came back, if you patted his head, he would lick your hand as if to say: “All is forgiven. I still love you.”

One afternoon Eleanor saw Atticus dragging himself down the driveway—a mass of blood and broken bones. He had been hit by a car while on a romantic mission with a neighborhood female. Although painfully mangled, he never whimpered.

The neighborhood veterinarian patched him up, and then later on, as other complications developed, he became the special patient of a marvelously healing veterinarian, Dr. Steven Sragner of the Norbeck Animal Center. Dr. Sranger and the ever diet-conscious Eleanor nursed Atticus for the next 10 years as he went through life physically handicapped, but generally ambulatory and comfortable.

When I won the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1972, Atticus seemed to get caught up in the excitement, along with the rest of the family. He became devoted to the Secret Service men who patrolled our Washington house. Since they were in the yard all night long, Atticus for the first time was willing to spend the nights outside.

He went on the campaign plane a couple of times. Once when an Associated Press photographer caught a picture of me trying to persuade Atticus to climb the ramp into the plane, Mary McGrory wrote a delightful column speculating on what a presidential candidate whispers in his dog’s ear.

Sometimes in the summer weeks when Eleanor was in South Dakota for periods of time, I would take Atticus to my Senate office for the day. He loved those trips—showing his anticipation by clinging to me during the rituals of shaving, reading the paper and having breakfast—and then making the joyous trip to the car and up the elevator to my office. Before the first day was over he had learned which staff members brought their lunches to the office. He would regularly stop at each desk to make sure that no one finished a sandwich, or a cookie or a bag of peanuts without sharing the treasure with him.

As the years passed, Atticus became increasingly lame—especially in his last year. If found myself lifting his rear quarters to help him get up after a long nap, or to climb steps or to get into his beloved back seat of the car.

As his medication, and the trips to see the vet and his afflictions increased, we began to talk—with the encouragement of the vet—about having him “put to sleep.” But Eleanor could not bear the thought, and to be honest, I was relieved that she resisted the logic expounded by the vet and by me. Her “foolishness” kept him alive through the summer and fall of 1981. She even took him to the country for much of that period so that he would not have to risk the slick marble hallway floors in the condominium where we have lived for the past year.

Then one day Atticus couldn’t get up to walk, even with help. He had little interest in food and was unable to make it through the night without intense, recurring discomfort.

And so Eleanor and I carried him to the car for his last ride to Dr. Sragner’s. The doctor was gone, but his assistant injected Atticus’ front, left leg with a deadly serum while we crouched around him. In a few seconds, that great, handsome head that we loved sank gently to the floor and he was “asleep.” The doctor wrapped him in a clean sheet and carried him on a stretcher with the help of an aide to our car. Eleanor and I took him to our little country home and buried him in the forest where he used to enjoy romping through the leaves and the trees.

He had a pattern of throwing a paw over your arm when he wanted to hold you nearby. From habit, I reached down to pat his paw before covering him in his grave. This time, of course, there was no uplifted pay, only a gallant old friend sleeping peacefully in a place that he has enriched for our family.

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George McGovern and man's best friend

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