There are lots of reasons to despise George H.W. Bush, not least the time he destroyed a DC teenager’s life so he could pretend crack was regularly on sale in front of the White House. But among the man’s few good characteristics was his love of English Springer Spaniels. Springers are medium-size packages of unremitting love and joy for anyone lucky enough to live with one (full disclosure: I grew up with Springers and have one now. Look at this BEAUTIFUL GUY.).
This is why I was astonished to find that Washingtonian called Bush’s dog Millie the Ugliest Dog in Washington in July 1989. Even more breath-taking, we put her photo and this sobriquet on the cover:
The invective continued inside the issue, with a bit of nuance: Millie was named the Best Ugly Dog in Washington on Page 98. “The First Lady loves her, and she’s a wonderful mother,” John Sansing wrote on the canine-heavy opener of the year’s “Best & Worst” list, which featured a nip-slip photo of Millie. “She hasn’t bitten the President during their showers together. But let’s face it: This is a very homely springer spaniel.”
The White House reacted with restrained dismay to this slight: “Imagine picking on a guy’s dog,” Bush told the Los Angeles Times afterward. Bush, the Times reported, called Washingtonian to ask how we chose Millie for this dishonor, but the editor who put her on the cover, Jack Limpert, wasn’t available when he rang. Limpert later sent a letter to the White House apologizing for the selection: “It’s clear that our words were unpopular as as well as impolite,” Limpert wrote, sending along some dog treats. “Not to worry!” Bush replied. “Millie, you see, likes publicity. Arf, arf for the dog biscuits.”
Limpert has written about this affair on his own blog, but I had some more questions. Reached by email, he tells me that the germ of this idea came from when he was walking his Golden Retriever Lindy and spoke with a neighbor walking a Springer. “When I said something nice about her dog, she began to talk about the virtues of Springer Spaniels and she mentioned that her dog was a lot better looking than Millie,” Limpert writes. “I’m not sure she called Millie ugly but she didn’t think the President’s dog was a good representative of the breed.”
Limpert says that when Lynne Mannino, Washingtonian’s art director at the time, “showed me her idea for that July’s Best & Worst cover—it was mostly type with the cover art a picture of a gold crown,” he suggested naming Millie “worst dog” instead. Mannino ventured that a crown “would be classier,” but Limpert put his foot down: No, he said, “we’re putting Millie on the cover and we’re calling her Washington’s ugliest dog.”
Afterward there was more reaction from members of the media than readers, Limpert remembers, “but those friends and readers I talked with thought it was a great story that showed the President as a human being who loved and wanted to defend his dog, not just a political leader.” With his apology he “tried to be as light-hearted as President Bush’s reaction” and never heard more from Bush about it: “I often went to the White House annual holiday reception for journalists but I can’t remember any interaction with President Bush” with regard to the Millie thing. Besides, he adds, “who doesn’t like a good dog story”?
Among his many towering contributions to Washingtonian, Limpert did more than his part to stock our archive of dog stories and wrote a tremendous essay for us about saying goodbye to his dog Danny, who was even on the cover in March 2000. (I think about this piece whenever I don’t feel like taking out my dog, Archie, because the weather is yucky: “Nice days or bad, I could handle it—I’m not a fair-weather friend,” Limpert wrote in words that never fail to goad me into action.)
I lack the internal gravitas to make institutional pronouncements here, but speaking solely for myself, I, too, would like to apologize to Millie, who enjoyed higher book sales than most of us can dream of, was the namesake for an apparently excellent dog park in Houston, and most important of all was a good and beautiful dog. As Barbara Bush told members of the press when asked about the July issue of Washingtonian after the President had lunch with the torturing, murderous, and corrupt dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1989, “She’ll get the last word.”