A dogs-eye view of A Dogs-Eye View

Max, whose name in Hungarian is Macko, is the four-footed companion of Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.).

Life in the U.S. Congress can be rough. Rough! Rough! But in My Senator and Me: A Dog’s-Eye View of Washington, D.C., Splash Kennedy offers a fun and sunny view of the legislative process, in a manner that kids can understand, leaving the parsing of the complexities and compromises to the pundits. 
This is a book meant to provide the young pups a little civics lesson without making it seem like a trip to the vet.

I know a thing or two about the subject, as I share my days with a seasoned member of the House of Representatives and have crossed paths with Splash and his master more than once. The latter, whose family album could just as well appear next to “public service” in any dictionary, has been a senator since 1962 — that’s more than seven dog years! 

Splash has been with him only since March 2000, but for a freshman he shows a fairly good grasp of what any workday can be like for a prominent member of Congress. Along with the ennobling aspects of making law on significant matters such as funding for public education, the text also reveals a wry sense of humor about potential pitfalls and the potential for hubris among those who move the levers of power. It is here that one can most clearly hear his master’s voice.

But it is Caldecott Award-winning David Small’s charming illustrations that provide most of the subtle laughs, from the squabbling legislators yanking one another’s neckties to a seemingly endless receiving line of toothy smiles and outstretched hands at a smart social function.

The depictions of Splash are most endearing. A happy, curly-headed bundle of bounce and wagging tail, this pooch steals the scene on every page. I especially liked the one where only his bright eyes and lolling tongue are visible through the tinted window of a VIP’s car.

The drawings also capture the elegant beauty of the U.S. Capitol, its intricate tiled floors and filigreed windows, with well-known locations such as the Rotunda alongside the more arcane places that insiders can appreciate, like the Ohio Clock.

It is easy to delight in the small details, like the mahogany and memorabilia of Senator Kennedy’s office. And the city’s major monuments and points of interests feature prominently. Visitors of all ages to the nation’s capital will gain a good idea of its allure if they first thumb through these pages.

One could take issue with the occasional oversight, like the foreshortened National Mall where some buildings are missing. But other significant aspects of the Washington landscape are also not featured in these pages, so I’d rather chalk that up to the need for an uncluttered look in a book that is, after all, not intended for architects or historians.

Similarly, political scientists may cringe at the incredibly smooth path of the senator’s landmark education proposal, an unimpeded straight shot from big idea to a bill bound for the president’s desk. Would that every conference committee could resolve discrepancies in major legislation in the course of a couple of hours, with a hearty “WOOF! WOOF!” to spur them on. For instance, Congress has yet to pass the bipartisan Lantos-Shays legislation introduced just after the Gulf Coast hurricanes last year to help ensure the safety of people with household pets and service animals in another emergency.

That said, this slim volume does a much better job of telling it like it is than the film “Legally Blonde 2,” whose only virtue is having a dog in a major supporting role. And it does a great service with a final page explaining the broad outlines of how a bill becomes a law.

As a bonus, important facts are offered up for the vast majority of righteous and wise individuals who love canines. For instance, Portuguese water dogs have webbed feet and use their tails as rudders when they swim. Who knew? I must say, though, that we Westie mixes are more buoyant.

The book even offers a political cause for those who choose to sniff it out: Dogs are not permitted on the Senate floor, while it is crawling with any number of elephants, donkeys, doves and hawks. 

Those who wish to comment on this injustice, or on any matter for Splash’s attention, are provided a handy e-mail address at the end of the book. The server supporting it is also the home of the Web page of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Splash’s master, loaded with all kinds of material about the legislative process, the senator and the issues he cares most about — a multimedia way to get the wee ones at least to browse a bit for more info with a mouse click or two. Maybe they’ll even develop an early taste for public policy this way. 

Helping launch a generation of little activists and leaders would be a big dividend for this winning book, and it would be consistent with the Kennedy family legacy. Good boy, Splash!


My Senator and Me: A Dog’s-Eye View of Washington, D.C.
By Sen. Edward Kennedy
Illustrated by David Small
Scholastic, 2006
56 pages, $16.99