Socks, who served as the White House Cat from 1992-2001, died on Friday near his waterfront home in Hollywood, Maryland. The former First Feline was believed to have been twenty, although there are some discrepancies involving his date and place of birth. He had not been well recently, and was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw. His death was the result of an assisted suicide of which he may not have been entirely aware, although he probably knew that something unusual was going on.
The Clintons broke new ground by having a cat as the sole White House pet. Indeed, they plowed relatively unfurrowed ground by having a cat at all. The first White House cat was Abraham Lincoln’s tabby, which, in that President’s simple but eloquent way, he named Tabby. The first twentieth century First Felines belonged to TR — Slippers and Tom Quartz. Calvin Coolidge had an alley cat named Tige.
Then there were no further White House felines for more than four decades, until Susan Ford’s Siamese Shan briefly took up residence in the Executive Mansion. Shan was immediately followed by another Siamese successor, Amy Carter’s Missy Malarkey Ying Yang.
Socks was a stray adopted by Chelsea Clinton in 1991 and brought to live in the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock. She named him because his markings made him look like he was wearing socks. Socks moved with the family to Washington and was the sole Presidential pet for several years until President Clinton acquired a chocolate lab puppy he named Buddy. Such introductions —even if made slowly and scientifically— are often unsuccessful. And that is how it was for these two: Socks and Buddy were like oil and water.
The First Lady noted that Socks “despised Buddy from first sight, instantly and forever.” President Clinton said: “I did better with…the Palestinians and the Israelis than I’ve done with Socks and Buddy.”
When the Clintons left the White House, they took Buddy to their new home in Chappaqua, New York, but left Socks under the care of the former President’s White House secretary, Betty Currie. The reason given was that the new home was too small to keep the two pets apart. Buddy (1997-2002) died as the result of an accident after running away. His obituary in The New York Times was headed “Buddy, Socks’ Nemesis, Is Dead.”
One of Mrs. Currie’s White House assignments was to be in charge of the copies of Leaves of Grass that the President inscribed and sent to some of his most special admirers. Mr. Clinton used Leaves of Grass as an aphrodisiac. Cats use grass as an emetic. Perhaps the President, despite his Oxford education, confused the two —which are, in fact, very different — and naturally assumed that Mrs. Currie would end up with Socks.
As is not uncommon with the Clintons, even something as simple as a deceased pet has become a subject of controversy.
When Mrs. Clinton was elected to the United States Senate, she bought a big house off Massachusetts Avenue, and many of Socks’ supporters assumed that he would soon be reunited with his beloved and much-missed mistress. Indeed, Senator Clinton’s office confirmed that hope. Alice J. Pushkar, the Senator’s director of correspondence, sent the following reassurance to the many concerned citizens who wrote in this regard:
Thank you for your recent e-mail in regard to Socks. The Clinton family appreciates your concern. To make this time of transition as easy as possible for Socks, the family decided that it would be best, while the Washington residence is being readied for occupancy, if he stayed with someone that he knew and with whom he has spent a great deal of time in the last eight years. Betty Currie who knows Socks well and shares the family’s concern for Socks’ well-being offered to take Socks to her home. I understand that he is quite content and settling in very quickly.
The house was completed several years ago, but Socks was never reclaimed. He briefly surfaced as an issue in Senator Clinton’s recent presidential campaign, when her attempts to “warm up” her personality were undercut by questions about her treatment of her cat.
Caitlin Flanagan wrote an article in The Atlantic in which she noted that, “In the annals of human evil, off-loading a pet is nowhere near the top of the list. But neither is it dead last, and it is especially galling when said pet has been deployed for years as an all-purpose character reference.” Ms. Flanagan noted that the First Lady had published a book of kids’ letters to Socks and had preached that pets are an “adoption instead of an acquisition.”
The presidential bid was not successful and Socks’ status once again receded from the public view. Now family friend and presidential historian Barry Landau states that this ostensible abandonment was not as a result of any lack of care or kindness. “The truth be known,” he said over the weekend, “Betty asked if Socks could come live with her. The Clintons didn’t abandon Socks. They were totally conflicted. It broke their hearts, but they knew it would be the right thing for Socks’ welfare.”
Mr. Landau, however, may have been exposed to too much catnip. He also claims: “Socks didn’t act like a cat. Socks was very dog-like, and Buddy and Socks got along well.” Not speaking ill of the dead is one thing, but that kind of historical revisionism borders on the Stalinesque.
Socks’ passing has been noted around the world, including in The New York Times, and the Washington Post, which had been reporting on his declining condition, and which claims to be the first news outlet to report his passing. It was also commemorated on Wonkette:
Socks the Cat, sorta beloved pet of the Clintons, died on Friday in the care of retired Clinton secretary Betty Currie. And why was Currie watching over Socks? Because when Bill Clinton left the White House for New York, he brought along newer pet Buddy the Dog, who was soon run over and crushed to death by a car. Socks was supposedly going to live in Hillary’s fancy new house in Washington, but Hillary was never quite “ready” to allow her own pet — a helpless animal — to move to Georgetown. So poor old Socks was stuck with Mrs. Currie, or poor old Mrs. Currie was stuck with Socks. But at least they were no longer stuck with the Clintons. The end.
(November 1992: paparazzi surround the new President-Elect’s pet on the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock.)