RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
New York Times columnist Gail Collins feasts on the foibles of elected officials, with a lively take on politicians past and present. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, this election season, Collins has brought a laser-like focus to a shaggy dog story with a political tie.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Plenty of folks have their unshakable obsessions. Indiana Jones sought the Holy Grail. Captain Ahab pursued the great white whale. For New York Times Columnist Gail Collins, it's her fixation on the voyages of an Irish setter named Seamus.
GAIL COLLINS: For some reason, the idea that you've got this guy who would drive all the way to Canada with an Irish setter sitting on the top of the car, it absolutely fascinated me.
FOLKENFLIK: This guy being Mitt Romney, as in the Republican presidential candidate, and the trip, a family vacation back in 1983, when Romney put the dog in a crate tied to the top of the family station wagon and drove off. One of Romney's sons told the Boston Globe about the episode back in 2007 as a humorous illustration of his dad's penchant for planning. The stops during the drive were strictly scheduled, even when the dog fouled the sides of the car. As a dog-lover, Collins says she finds Seamus' treatment objectionable. As a liberal columnist, she calls it a miracle.
COLLINS: I don't know what it is about that factoid that interests me more than Ron Paul's theories about the Federal Reserve, or anything else about any of these other candidates.
FOLKENFLIK: Collins has cited the dog in just shy of three dozen columns. Why would she do that? Collins says such moments can reveal character - in this case, Romney's rigid emphasis on efficiency.
COLLINS: When I started writing columns, I thought that my goal would be to get people more interested in politics and to try and do it in a way that did not cause them to want to throw themselves out the nearest window. And Seamus works very well on that front.
FOLKENFLIK: Dartmouth Political Science Professor Brendan Nyhan started keeping a running tally.
BRENDAN NYAN: She's trying to be funny. I get that. I appreciate a good campaign story as much as the next person. But I do think it's representative of the way that the media focuses on trivia, things that are so inconsequential. Mitt Romney is not running for dog catcher. He's running for president of the United States.
FOLKENFLIK: Nyhan is a Democrat and blogger for the Columbia Journalism Review. He says he's not a Romney supporter.
NYAN: The deeper problem here is the way that pundits want to put candidates on the couch and psychoanalyze them. So this is being used to illustrate some sort of deeper, underlying flaw in Mitt Romney's personality. But Gail Collins is not a psychologist, and I'm not sure how much this really tells us about whether he'd be good as president.
FOLKENFLIK: When the story was first published in the run-up to the 2008 presidential primaries, animal rights activists belonging to groups such as PETA criticized Romney, and it's not a favorite one for the campaign. Here's how Romney responded back then.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MITT ROMNEY: You know, PETA has not been my fan over the years. PETA was after me for having a rodeo at the Olympics, and very, very upset about that. PETA was after me when I went quail hunting in Georgia, and they're not happy that my dog likes fresh air.
FOLKENFLIK: This time around, a Romney campaign spokeswoman didn't reply to several requests for comment. I should point out: Collins has brought up Seamus six times in her blog postings, too. When I talked to Collins last week, I asked her whether all that attention was fair to Romney.
COLLINS: He did it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COLLINS: Is it fair to Seamus, who got put on the roof of the car? I think it's pretty fair. Yeah. Sure.
FOLKENFLIK: Collins says she and the saga of Seamus will be strapped together at least until the end of the primaries. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.