Slate Attacks President Bush’s Service Dog

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Slate’s Ruth Graham isn’t wasting much time on sentimentality. In an op-ed she wrote for the site, she tries to dissect the nation’s growing fascination with President George H.W. Bush’s service dog, Sully. It isn’t the dog she has a problem with. It is how the Labrador, as she sees it, is being used.

Bush’s spokesman Jim McGrath posted an image to Twitter Sunday night. It showed Sully, the service dog that has spent the last few months with George H.W. Bush, lying in front of Bush’s flag draped coffin.

The caption read “Mission complete.”

There was an element of heroism captured in the image, and it spoke to the American people. The image went viral and the dog has become famous, all–as Graham says–for “lying down.”

Graham goes on to list a number of the tributes posted to the dog, and suggested that all of the emotional reactions were based on a lie. This wasn’t Bush’s dog, exactly. Sully was, Graham says, “an employee who served for less than six months.”

“Sully’s Instagram account,” she writes, “which has 147,000 followers as of Monday night, has been active since late June. That’s when ‘he’ posted a photograph with a sign reading ‘Walker’s Point Here I Come,’ referring to the location of the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Sully arrived there over the summer to help the former president, who used a wheelchair because of symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, with tasks like opening doors and picking up objects.”

Sully, she notes, is now on to his next gig. “Bush’s son George W. Bush announced that Sully is heading to his next assignment: Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.”

“The reason Sully has a new job lined up already is that he is an ambassador for a New York–based nonprofit called America’s VetDogs. The agency trains guide and service dogs for military veterans and first responders with disabilities. It has a savvy public relations team—see: Sully’s Instagram account—and has placed a ‘puppy with a purpose’ at NBC’s Today show, as well. (The group’s online press room caters to journalists seeking ‘an uplifting tale with a happy ending” or “an inspiring tale of a veteran with a disability.’)”

While she isn’t sad about the emotion shown for the late Bush, she seems frustrated by the outpouring for the dog. “[I]t’s a bit demented to project soul-wrenching grief onto a dog’s decision to lie down in front of a casket. Is Sully ‘heroic’ for learning to obey the human beings who taught him to perform certain tasks? Does the photo say anything special about this dog’s particular loyalty or judgment, or is he just … there? Also, if dogs are subject to praise for obeying their masters, what do we do about the pets who eat their owners’ dead (or even just passed-out) bodies?”

“On its own,” she says about the photo, “it says almost nothing other than the fact that Sully was, at one point in the same room as the casket of his former boss. This is simply a photograph of a dog doing something dogs love to do: Lie down. The frenzy around it captures something humans love to do, too: Project our own emotional needs onto animals.”