Outfitted with a webcam on his collar, “First Dog” Barney captured a canine’s view of White House Christmas preparations in 2002 during the first term of President George W. Bush. The video went viral and an online star was born.
“Barney was used in such an important way, offering a look inside the White House at a time when it was closed to the public after 9/11,” says author Jennifer Boswell Pickens, whose new book, Pets at the White House, focuses on the famous canines, felines and other pets that have occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Pickens portrays the special role of first pets in more than 200 carefully selected photographs, many of which have never been published before, as well as a multitude of anecdotes. Each administration, from Kennedy to Obama, is covered in its own chapter. Pickens, a 2000 graduate of SMU with a degree in American history, also includes an overview of pets owned by earlier first families.
“Like all families, I think the first families were very comforted by their pets and it shows in the photographs,” says Pickens, who lives in Dallas with husband Bryan ’99, their four young daughters and two dogs.
This is her second volume to offer a distinctive look inside the most prestigious address in Washington, D.C. Pickens, a noted White House social expert, published her first best-selling book, Christmas at the White House, in 2009.
“It’s very special to me that every living first lady wrote the introduction to her section of the book,” says the author. SMU alumna Laura Bush ’68 also contributed the forward.
While poring over images for that book, Pickens was drawn to photos that featured the first pets. “So, before I was even finished with the first book, my second book was well under way,” she says.
She intentionally selected topics that not only interest her, but also hold universal appeal.
“What I love about my books is that they are on subjects that can bring all Americans together,” she says. “No matter which side of the political aisle you are on, everyone can appreciate the White House at Christmastime and what it represents, as well as the history of our famous ‘first pets.’”
Both coffee-table books are published by Fife and Drum Press, which she and her husband founded in 2009.
Her first book took four years of research and interviews, and along the way, Pickens learned that “each presidential library has its own personality. They’re all very different,” she says. She gives the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum staff high marks for being “very helpful and responsive. They’re great to work with.”
Pickens also gained a new appreciation for her academic training at SMU. “James Breeden, Glenn Linden and other professors really pushed students to do solid research for papers and presentations,” she says. “I learned to ask the right questions, and when you’re cold-calling librarians and archivists, you need to know what to ask to get the information you need.”