Rocca’s Pet Project
Satirical Book Takes Sharp Look at White House Press Corps
If the story of “Alice in Wonderland” were ever to be remade and set in present-day Washington, D.C., pop-culture satirist and former “Daily Show” “fake-news” corespondent Mo Rocca could probably be the one to write the script.
That’s because in his debut book, “All the President’s Pets,” which hits stores today, Rocca has created a similarly bizarre story that turns Washington in general, and the White House press corps in particular, into a trippy world full of talking animals, absurd behavior, wild misadventures and illogical logic.
In his self-described “story of one reporter who refused to roll over,” Rocca spins an outrageous fictional adventure that takes the reader into the depths of Wolf Blitzer’s private Japanese dojo, across town to a Fox News Corp. variety show — featuring a song-and-dance routine by Fox reporter Laurie Dhue in a sequined body stocking — and everywhere else in between. And from the moment Rocca enters the story — “floating facedown at the western end of the Reflecting Pool, just a few yards from the bottom step of the Lincoln Memorial, my hand still clutching a faded Pinocchio chew toy” — to the story’s exciting conclusion in chapter 28 — titled “The Chapter That Only Jerry Bruckheimer Could Bring to Film” — the reader is often left wondering, “Where did he come up with this stuff?”
But beyond the insanity, Rocca also uses his story to sharply criticize the media and their relationship with politicians. His main target is the White House press corps, whose journalistic potency has been increasingly eroded in recent decades and which he believes has become even more ineffective since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
These days, “I think everything is stacked against the press corps,” Rocca said in an interview.
The book’s storyline roughly follows Rocca’s antics as a rookie reporter who just stepped into the White House pet beat, having been assigned to cover the day-to-day actions of President Bush’s Scottish terrier, Barney. With the help of his heroine Helen Thomas, the famed former United Press International reporter, Rocca uncovers a jarring secret connection between presidential pets and executive branch power.
“I thought I’d write what amounts to a history of presidential power from the eyes of the pets,” Rocca said. At the same time he also wanted to highlight “a press corps that has been more and more shut out by the presidents. So I said to myself, ‘What is it that they’re hiding?’”
Throughout his story Rocca freely admits his admiration for Thomas. He said the dean of the White House press corps deserved to be the heroine of his book.
“I always wanted to co-star in a thriller with Helen Thomas,” Rocca said. “Helen Thomas is the only one willing to look like a nag simply because she’s willing to ask the same questions over and over again. … After 9/11 the press corps went into a kind of coma, but she was the first one out of the gates asking questions again.”
Rocca and Thomas, in the course of their wild adventure, are helped and hindered by the likes of the television cartoon dog Mr. Peabody (of “Peabody’s Improbable History”), a rather large and menacing albino a la “The Da Vinci Code,” and a whole host of cable news personalities and talking heads.
When Rocca does slip into the realm of fact, his history of presidential pets is actually one of most interesting parts of his book.
“It was a bitch to research,” Rocca said, pun intended. “There were only five or six books on the subject. Thank God for eBay.”
The incident in presidential pet history that Rocca said inspired the entire project was the 1961 love affair between Charlie, President John F. Kennedy’s Welsh terrier, and Pushinka, a white half-husky that was given to the Kennedys as a gift from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and was the daughter of the famed space dog Strelka. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis in October of that year, Pushinka gave birth to a litter of four “pupnicks” — as her puppies were later dubbed — much to the delight of those living in the White House.
“I wondered if that’s why [Kennedy] chose to disregard Curtis Lemay,” the Air Force general who advocated for a hawkish response to the missile crisis, said Rocca, who admitted he’s more of a cat person. “I wondered if that’s what melted [Kennedy’s] heart.”
A few other pet stories Rocca brings to life are the comparison George Washington made between his trusted war horse Nelson and Royal Gift, a “super mule” that was a present from the king of Spain; and the tragic death of President Rutherford B. Hayes’ Siamese cat, Miss Pussy, a gift from David Sickles, then-American counsel to Siam.
Although Rocca has never personally met Bush’s dog, Barney, he did make use of his presidential pet knowledge at one recent White House Christmas party he made when he pointed out to Bush that he had the first presidential Scotty since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dog Fala (which was formally renamed Murray the Outlaw of Fala Hill after a Roosevelt ancestor).
“I don’t think that’s a coincidence — FDR was a war president,” Rocca told Bush.
But when Bush countered that President Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoyed the company of two Scotties, Caacie and Telek, Rocca said he felt obligated to point out that Eisenhower received those two dogs as gifts when he was still a general fighting World War II.
“Those were supreme allied commander Scotties,” not presidential Scotties, Rocca recalled explaining to Bush in the middle of the party.
Though Rocca admits that his vast understanding of presidential pet knowledge may seem a bit odd, he said that first and foremost his book was a fun project to take on.
“It was a convenient way to tell a fun story that includes lots of history, White House pets, me and Helen Thomas with something of a relevant hook.”
Rocca’s book tour will bring him to Washington, D.C., in two weeks. He will hold a lecture and book signing at Politics and Prose in Northwest D.C. on Oct. 14 and is scheduled to appear at the Capitol on Oct. 15.