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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Liberty: America's Dog

  • Colleen Shogan Senior Vice President and Director of the David M. Rubenstein Center

When the Fords moved into the White House in August 1974, they did not have a dog. However, the family’s transition to life in the White House was disrupted on September 26, when First Lady Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. Two days later, Mrs. Ford underwent a radical mastectomy at Bethesda Naval Hospital. She recovered at the facility for several days after her operation.1

Liberty in front of the White House in 1974.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

First Daughter Susan Ford and Personal Photographer to the President David Hume Kennerly believed that President Gerald Ford and the first lady needed a thoughtful surprise to boost their spirits. Kennerly found a reputable dog breeder who had puppies available. He called the breeder to secure the purchase for an “undisclosed friend,” which resulted in a humorous exchange, retold by Gerald Ford in his 1979 published memoir:

"We don't sell dogs that way," the owner replied. "We have to know if the dog is going to a good home. "

"The couple is friendly," David said. "They're middle-aged, and they live in a white house with a big yard and a fence around it. It's a lovely place."

"Do they own or rent?" the owner asked.

David thought for a minute. "I guess you might call it public housing," he said.

The owner said the dog was healthy; she was going to eat a lot. Did his friend have a steady job? David could play the game no longer. He hinted that his friend was a very important person and finally the owner agreed to fly the dog to Washington.2

Susan surprised her father in the Oval Office with the dog the day before Mrs. Ford returned home from the hospital. The eight-month-old puppy was a female golden retriever named Streaker, but the Fords quickly changed her name to Liberty. Gerald Ford described her arrival as a “joyous experience.”3

Liberty swimming with President Gerald Ford at Camp David in 1975.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Liberty quickly settled into life at the White House. She was often photographed outside, enjoying the South Lawn on sunny days. Liberty also enjoyed swimming in the pool at Camp David. At times, President Ford allegedly used Liberty as a diversionary tactic in the Oval Office. When he wanted a meeting to end, he would signal to Liberty, who wagged her tail enthusiastically at the guest. This created a conversational break so the president could stand up, indicating the meeting had come to its conclusion.4

Liberty was part of the family at the White House, with President Ford frequently assisting with her care. At Ford’s funeral in 2007, former White House Press Secretary David Nessen recalled that one day, Liberty “made a mess” on the carpet in the Oval Office. A Navy steward started to clean it up, but President Ford stopped him, remarking that, “no man should have to clean up after another man’s dog.”5

Liberty in the Oval Office with President Ford in 1974.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Liberty soon became quite popular, receiving much fan mail at the White House. Along with Susan Ford, Dorothy Downton, President Ford’s personal secretary, organized Liberty’s correspondence. At first, she would dip Liberty’s paw in ink and provide an “autograph” to special friends of the Fords who requested it. This was a laborious process, requiring Downton to clean Liberty’s paw extensively after a time-intensive autograph session. Soon, Liberty’s “paw-tograph” became widely known. Downton changed the procedure, enabling anyone who wrote to Liberty to receive a photograph in the mail, along with a printed copy of Liberty’s paw stamp.6

In 1975, Liberty was in the advanced stages of pregnancy at the White House. In the middle of the night, she had to go outside to use the bathroom, so she woke President Ford. He put on his robe and slippers and took Liberty downstairs so she could have access to the South Lawn. After Liberty was finished, President Ford rang for the elevator to return to the Executive Residence. Unbeknownst to him, the elevator had been switched off overnight. Pursuing an alternate route, President Ford took Liberty into the stairwell but quickly discovered the door to the Third Floor had been locked. President Ford and a very pregnant Liberty were trapped! Eventually, the Secret Service figured out what had happened, and helped the president and Liberty return to their respective beds for the night.7

Liberty and her puppies in the White House, with Susan Ford, Betty Ford, and Gerald Ford.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Liberty’s puppies took her popularity to an entirely new level. Liberty delivered nine pups on September 14, 1975, on the Third Floor of the White House. Betty Ford, Susan Ford, a veterinarian, and Liberty’s trainer were present for the birth. Liberty did a photo shoot inside the White House with her litter, and two months later, they also were photographed with the Ford family in the Rose Garden. The Fords kept a female puppy, Misty, and another pup was given to the Leader Dog School for the Blind in Michigan. The other seven dogs were adopted by family and friends.8

Liberty lived with the Fords after they left the White House. In Rapid City, South Dakota, she is immortalized in bronze as a statue alongside Gerald Ford as part of a “City of Presidents” downtown display of former presidents.