First puppy makes splash before official White House debut

Bo wore a lei during a recent trip to the White House. Bo wore a lei during a recent trip to the White House. (Pete Souza/ White House)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post / April 12, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Who let the dog out?

That's the Washington mystery du jour.

The identity of the first puppy - the one that the Washington press corps has been yelping about for months, the one President Obama has seemed to delight in dropping hints about - leaked out yesterday. This despite White House efforts to delay the news until the big debut planned for Tuesday afternoon.

The little guy is a 6-month-old Portuguese water dog given to the Obama girls as a gift by that Portuguese water dog-loving senator himself, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Malia and Sasha named it Bo; their cousins have a cat named Bo and first lady Michelle Obama's father was nicknamed Diddley, a source said.

Bo's a handsome little guy. Well-suited for formal occasions at the White House, he's got tuxedo-black fur, with a white chest, white paws, and a rakish white goatee.

Clearly, the identity of the dog was information too big to contain. A mysterious website called published a puppy picture yesterday morning, complete with a Q-and-A with the dog, which it said was originally named Charlie. The celebrity gossip website linked to the picture. So much for the big White House unveiling.

The affair was another hard lesson for Obama's tight-knit team, which had considerable success at controlling information and leaking tidbits to different news outlets during the campaign. But once Obama took office, that proved more difficult. With more wide-ranging sources of information available, word leaked to the media of major nominations, as well as the tax problems that sank former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle's bid to become the White House health czar.

So it went with Bo's story.

In mid-March, word on the street was that the White House was going to plant a vegetable garden. A Washington Post food reporter was making calls, probing, pushing. But the White House was mum. Word filtered out that the exclusive had been promised to The New York Times. But the White House offered a mollifier: The puppy exclusive is yours.

The newspaper that cracked Watergate was happy to have the puppy story.

These kinds of arrangements get made all the time in Washington, but seldom are discussed publicly. The puppy deal seemed to be holding up. Sure, reporters here and there nipped at the story. There were hints that the puppy was a gift. There were reports that the Kennedys were involved - but the senator's press people professed no knowledge.

But then came yesterday morning. The FirstDogCharlie site included a photograph of a Portuguese water dog that looked exactly like the dog in a White House photo - right down to the multicolored lei - that The Washington Post was getting ready to publish on the front page of its Sunday paper.

Still, there's lots of stuff that didn't leak out, including a secret get-acquainted session with the family at the White House a few weeks ago. The visit, known around the White House as "The Meeting," was a surprise for the girls. Bo wore a lei then, too.

Bo charmed the first family, a source who was there said. He sat when the girls sat, stood when the girls stood. He made no toileting errors and did not gnaw on the furniture.