Part 2 of a Series

By the time the Hardings came to Alaska in the summer of 1923, Laddie Boy had already established national, if not international, celebrity status. The President and First Lady had discussed getting a White House dog after their victory. The First Lady wanted a Boston Terrier and the President wanted an Airedale. The March 13, 1921, Boston Post reported that when Charles W. Quetsche at the Toledo, Ohio Caswall Kennels heard of that friendly disagreement, “he lost no time in sending to Washington a {full}blooded Airedale puppy, 15 months old. A little white tag tied to the animal’s collar proclaimed that the puppy would answer to the name Caswall Laddie Boy.” The newspaper quoted the President’s delighted response, “I am going to have near me at least one friend who won’t talk.” Harding thought his new companion could remain silent. He was to learn differently.

The dog had to have a nickname, the press decided, “Imagine the President standing at the back door of the executive mansion and calling out ‘Come, Caswall Laddie boy! ‘Come, Caswall Laddie boy!’ It can’t be done – not without considerable tongue twisting.” So, the Boston Post decided to hold a contest to nickname Laddie Boy with a $5 prize to the winner.

The deadline to submit an entry was March 22. On April 17, the man who gave Laddie Boy to Harding wrote a letter to the Boston Post, “Some time ago you ran a contest for nickname for the dog I gave to President Harding. The enclosed letter from the President tells you how he likes “Laddie Boy,” and I doubt if he would change its name.” The Harding letter that followed expressed the President’s general satisfaction with the dog as he was, though there was no mention of a name change. Apparently, the contest fizzled out and for good reason.

After World War I the name Laddie Boy became associated with the soldiers themselves, especially wounded veterans. The U.S. went to war in April 1917 and that year, as men reported to the new selective service, the song, “Good Bye and Luck Be With You Laddie Boy,” became a hit. Indeed, in a June 9, 1921, letter to the New Your City Woman’s Press Club on behalf of wounded veterans, Florence Harding described war vets as, “the First Laddies in the Land.” In addition, there were several service dogs from the war who became celebrities. Perhaps the most famous was a German shepherd named “Rinty” rescued from the battlefield by American soldier, Lee Duncan. That dog became the film star known as Rin Tin Tin.

Reporters knew that Laddie Boy had a front row seat as a White House insider. Perhaps what challenged the press most was Harding’s comment that he could depend upon his pet as a loyal and silent friend, one who would not leak savory tidbits to the media. That was just too tempting because reporters knew the royal Airedale had a front seat at all the President’s cabinet meetings – even his own chair. At a July 1921 ceremony, fellow newspaper men awarded Harding a special editorial chair. Laddie Boy was present for the award and suddenly jumped up into the chair and made it his own – and so that chair became his during all the cabinet meetings. The dog was also known to lounge in the Oval Office when great matters of state were discussed. So – of course there was only one way to find out how tightlipped Laddie Boy was willing to be -- and that was for the press to interview him.

Washington reporter, Theodore Tiller, found the dog sitting disconsolately one day outside the White House with his tongue hanging out. It wasn’t difficult to get Laddie Boy to talk. “I don’t know why this job of being the White House dog was wished on me,” he lamented. He knew that other dogs were jealous of him but, “My fellow dogs are welcome to this job any time,” he said. Harding was a kindly man the dog admitted, but with little time for him. “Whenever I want to talk dog language and come to some understanding, in bursts Harry Dougherty, also from Ohio, who says they’ve got to give another job to some fellow out in my State…The chief is terribly pestered by the patronage hounds. Half of his time is spent in telling folks there are not enough jobs to go around after Ohio gets through. Most of these job hunters try to get next to the boss by saying something nice about me;  or a fat man they call Joe Fordney who gets excited about the tariff…or Herbert Hoover, who drops in with a hard luck story…or Mr. Weeks, who says it’s an outrage the way the Congress is cutting down the size of his army…Hoover is always trying to consolidate something… and so on…All this time, you understand, I am wagging my trail and hoping the President will…let me run down Pennsylvania avenue for a few minutes.”

John W. Weeks was Harding’s Secretary of War. Joe Fordney was the Michigan congressman who served from 1899 to 1923 and was on the expenditures committee for the Navy and on the Ways and Means Committee. In 1922 he co-sponsored the Fordney-McCumber Tariff which tried to protect American farms and factories by raising tariffs. Calvin Coolidge (“Silent Cal”) was vice president and became our 30th President after Harding’s death in 1923.  His wife died the next year. Coolidge served until 1929. He was not part of Harding’s inner circle.

Harry Dougherty had helped Harding get the presidential nomination and became his attorney general. He was one of what has been called the “Ohio Gang,” political cronies who Harding gathered around him who later betrayed him with their corruption.  Herbert Hoover, the secretary of commerce, remained outside of and disgusted with that clique. “He enjoyed the company of these men and his old Ohio associates in and out of the government,” Hoover later recalled in his memoirs. Just before Harding left for his Alaska trip in July 1923, Dougherty’s personal assistant, Jess Smith, committed suicide, which caused much speculation – Dougherty was suspected of involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal and of other corruption. He was indicted in 1926, but after a deadlocked jury at 7-5 in favor of conviction, he was acquitted in a second trial by the vote of one juror.

With the Ohio Gang in charge, the press probably heard inklings of backroom exploits. Interviewing Laddie Boy was perhaps a good way of hinting at what might be going on behind closed doors. But reporters didn’t have enough evidence in 1921 to be explicit. A Tampa Tribune reporter wrote in August 1921, the cabinet meetings were mostly boring, Laddie Boy told them, with everybody always agreeing with the president. “Sometimes I hear something worthwhile.” Everybody laughs at Daugherty’s stories except Hughes and Coolidge. Vice President Coolidge just sits around and “looks as happy as an exhibit in a divorce suit or a ‘horrible example’ in a temperance lecture…After everybody has talked awhile and praised my master, somebody suggests they flip a coin to see who buys the lunch or just eat at the White House. “Daugherty says he’d just as soon eat right where they are, and so they adjourn and I have more table scraps than ever.”

It wasn’t all politics. Some of it was just pure fun and the public loved it, and it gave the press a perfect opportunity to occasionally write biting commentary and opinion under the guise of homespun humor. Alaskans had most likely read these stories and knew much about Laddie Boy. During one interview, the dog said he was feeling rather ill. “Yesterday I bit a reactionary Congressman…I think it gave me a touch of ptomaine poisoning,” he complained to the Philadelphia Inquirer in March, 1921. Like master, Laddie Boy wanted to emphasize to his fellow canines that he was just a regular guy, and at the same time show off how well-read he was. “They tell me that Kipling wrote something about ‘a rag, a bone and a hank of hair.’ I’m for that; I want to sleep one night on an old rag, and I’d like to tear just one hank of hair out of the back of certain dogs I don’t like, but I cannot get away to fight. I want one chance at an alley cat.”

In July 1923, after Dougherty’s personal assistant, Jess Smith, committed suicide, the president decided to bring Secretary of Commerce Hoover with him to Alaska. Hoover later recalled, “One day after lunch when we were a few days out, Harding asked me to come to his cabin. He plumped at me the question, "If you knew of a great scandal in our administration, would you for the good of the country and the party expose it publicly or would you bury it?" My natural reply was, "Publish it, and at least get credit for integrity on your side." He remarked that this method might be politically dangerous. I asked for more particulars. He said that he had received some rumors of irregularities, centering around Smith, in connection with cases in the Department of Justice. He had followed the matter up and finally sent for Smith. After a painful session he told Smith that he would be arrested in the morning. Smith went home, burned all his papers, and committed suicide. Harding gave me no information about what Smith had been up to. I asked what Daugherty's relations to the affair were. He abruptly dried up and never raised the question again.”

Once the Alaska trip was finalized, the territory anxiously prepared for and awaited the visit. Alaska felt treated like a colony rather than a territory. Although we had representatives, we had no voting members of the Congress or Senate. It was a long trip for Alaskans to lobby in Washington, D.C. Few powerful Outside politicians had spent any time here. This was an opportunity for ordinary Alaskans to meet, talk with, and try to give these Outsiders a more realistic picture of the territory. 

By June 1923, as the Harding trip became more certain, a story out of Juneau by Henry Clay reported that, “An air of expectancy pervades Alaska’s dogdom. Canines are on the qui vive {alert or lookout}. Pups are wagging their tails nervously. Sober and sagacious malamutes and huskies are going about their business as quietly as possible, but their calmness comes with noticeable effort. For something big is in the wind. Laddie Boy! Dog aristocrat of the nation! If he’ll just come to Alaska.” June 4, 1923 Muncie (Indiana) Evening Press.

A local dog named Malamute Bob wanted to invite Laddie Boy to Alaska and convinced Governor Scott C. Bone to pass on the request. People knew that the President’s dog rarely went on his trips, so other Alaska canines joined Malamute Bob to tell Laddie Boy, “not to let anyone chase him out of the auto when the President starts.” Don’t let Harding talk you out of joining him, they told Laddie Boy, because we’ll promise you “the choicest cuts of reindeer, whale blubber, seal, sea lion and walrus – served Alaska style.” The Dogs of Alaska ended their invitation with, “Trusting, exalted ruler, that you can get away with it, we are your humble servants.” The Governor stamped the letter with official seal and ordered it sent off immediately.

Alaskans behind this fun knew the odds were against Laddie Boy coming to Alaska, but they would find other ways to honor the dog   And the President and Mrs. Harding would take the country’s First Dog along with them in spirit.

TO BE CONTINUED 

Doug Capra lives in Seward with his wife, Cindy. He’s the author of The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords, and the foreword to the reprint of a special edition of American artist Rockwell Kent’s 1920 classic, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska published by Wesleyan University Press in 1996.