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This man is a White House dog's best friend

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 | 4:34 p.m. CDT

NEW YORK — Of all Barry H. Landau's anecdotes about his friendships with presidential dogs — and trust us, he has lots of 'em — perhaps the best is the one about the time the Clinton White House called to postpone his playdate with Buddy.

Yes, Landau is both human and an adult — a 60-year-old author, presidential historian, former White House protocol officer and memorabilia collector. But so enamored is he of dogs, and so well connected to a succession of presidents, that he had an appointment for a South Lawn romp one day with Buddy, Bill Clinton's Labrador retriever.

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Logistics got in the way, though, and hence Clinton secretary Betty Currie's apologetic voice mail left at the Smithsonian Institution, where Landau was doing research: "I'm sorry, but we'll have to reschedule Mr. Landau's playdate with Buddy."

Not surprisingly, this is a happy week for Landau, with the new Obama family dog, Bo, joining a White House tradition that dates to George Washington. It's one that Landau feels is invaluable to a presidency.

"Having a dog just humanizes a president," he says. "It completes the picture. It's something people can relate to."

And Landau has related to the best of them. He's known about 25 White House dogs since the Eisenhower administration. Among the presidential-pooch memorabilia in his Manhattan apartment are matching orange inaugural dog coats worn by LBJ's twin beagles, Him and Her, and a photo of Landau kissing Clipper, JFK's German shepherd.

Landau's dog tale begins in 1958, at age 10. He had been invited to the Eisenhower White House following a chance encounter with the first lady. The president let Landau frolic with his beloved Weimaraner, Heidi.

A history of high-profile canine encounters had begun.

The Kennedy White House was a virtual Noah's Ark — a cat, a canary, a rabbit named Zsa Zsa, parakeets, hamsters, ponies (including Caroline's famous Macaroni) and a number of dogs. Landau, who had gone to summer camp with members of Jackie Kennedy's family, got to know them all, including Pushinka, offspring of a Soviet space dog.

Then came LBJ's beagles. And Richard Nixon's famous Checkers, whom Landau met during his vice presidential campaign. But it was another Nixon dog, King Timahoe, who was Landau's true friend.

"I used to take him to Serendipity when the president was in New York," he says, referring to a Manhattan restaurant. "They'd give him an extra-long hot dog."

It was Gerald Ford who hired Landau as assistant chief of protocol in the White House — actually the third time he had worked at the mansion in various capacities — and Landau thinks it was because of a dog. At an Iranian Embassy event, the shah of Iran was amused when Landau barked as the ambassador's dog came by. As Landau recounts it, the shah told Ford he would like to speak to the barking guy.

Jimmy Carter didn't have a dog, but Landau bonded with the Reagans, for whom he continued to do freelance protocol work, over Rex (a King Charles spaniel) and Lucky (a Bouvier). He was also deeply fond of Millie, the pooch from the first Bush administration.

And then there was Buddy, whom Clinton acquired in 1997, not long before the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke.

"Buddy was a true comfort to him," says Landau, who once had Tiffany dog tags made for the pooch. "They went through a lot together."

Landau has a handwritten letter from Clinton, sent just after the dog was killed by a car in 2002. And Landau says Clinton also commiserated with him over the illness of the author's own poodle, Topper, actually accompanying him to the vet once.

Snapshots of Landau cuddling Barney, Miss Beazley and Spot, the George W. Bush dogs, fill an envelope in one of Landau's drawers.

While he's cagey about his contacts with the new president, Landau allows that he's given the Obamas dog advice. It's not unreasonable, he says, to assume he might be meeting Bo in the not-too-distant future.

But lest one assume Landau befriends only presidential dogs, think again.

"He walks around the city with dog biscuits in his pocket, even though he doesn't have his own dog anymore," says Larry Bird, Landau's friend and a curator of American history at the Smithsonian.

And one of Landau's most impressive dog tales concerns not a president at all, but a queen.

In London in the 1960s, he met Queen Elizabeth II (yes, there are photos of that, too) and couldn't resist asking to meet her famed Corgis. As Landau tells it, his wish was the queen's command. The next day he found himself on a playdate at Windsor Castle.


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