Off the Record had called to inquire about a prominent leitmotif in Ms. Collins bi-weekly op-ed columns, known to her followers as “dog on the roof,” or “Crate Gate.”
The allusion appeared yesterday, as it does just about any time the columnist writes about G.O.P. primary candidate Mitt Romney. She wrote that Mr. Romney’s latest shot at rival Newt Gingrich—“Zany is not what we need in a president”—was a safe stance, seeing as no one could characterize the glaringly square Mormon as such.
“Unless it was when he drove to Canada with the family dog strapped to the roof of the station wagon. (‘Hey, Mister, you got an Irish setter on top of your car. What are you, zany or something?’),” she wrote.
With political coverage dominating the op-ed page on the eve of the GOP primary, even casual readers remark upon how frequently Ms. Collins deploys the anecdote, transforming it from a biographical footnote to an emasculating epithet. Fellow Times employees have certainly noticed—a handful have posted pictures of the dog to her office wall, she said.
The anecdote first captivated Ms. Collins when it was published in The Boston Globe during the former Massachusetts governor’s first primary bid in 2007.
On a family road trip to Canada, the story goes, Mr. Romney strapped the family Irish setter Seamus’s crate to the roof, inducing doggie diarrhea that soiled the back windshield and sent the Romney boys into hysterics.
Compromising his anal-retentive itinerary, Mr. Romney “coolly pulled off the highway and into a service station,” the Globe wrote.
“There, he borrowed a hose, washed down Seamus and the car, then hopped back onto the highway.”
Ms. Collins was less outraged by the possible animal abuse than she was “tickled” by the way the way the story had been cast politically.
“One of his sons told this story as an example of his organizational skills,” she explained.
Seamus has long since passed on, but Ms. Collins carries his torch in her columns, where she has mentioned the incident no less than 30 times since its August 2007 debut (“Haunted by Seamus,” the column was aptly titled) and virtually every time Mr. Romney’s name appears.
She is dead set on bringing it up in every Romney discussion until the primary is over, she told Off the Record.
“Then I cannot do it anymore,” she said.
Not that anyone is stopping her. Op-ed columnists get little more than a copy edit before going to print, Ms. Collins explained.
“[Opinions editor] Andy Rosenthal has not expressed any remorse,” she said.
“Dog on the roof” has even become a jokey refrain in The Conversation, her weekly transcribed chats with David Brooks. He has conspired with Ms. Collins to work it in.
In one particularly whimsical installment, the two envisioned Mr. Romney and Rick Perry trapped in a snowy cave in the White Mountains of New Hampshire—the only circumstances in which Jon Huntsman could feasibly win the state—lounging in animal skins and making cave paintings.
“Romney would paint saber-tooth tigers, riding in cages on the top of his car. (There, got that in),” Mr. Brooks wrote.
“Thanks,” Ms. Collins replied, “I was wondering where I could fit in the dog on the roof.”
Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. did mention Crate Gate once, Ms. Collins admitted, when he noted that she had revived the tale for Mr. Romney’s second bid for the GOP nomination, despite having vowed in print not to mention it again.
(Ms. Collins remembered no such promise, but did lament losing her excuse to bring it up when Mr. Romney dropped out of the 2008 race. “Worst of all, I’m going to have to get through the rest of the year without ever again referring to the fact that Romney once drove to Canada with the family dog, Seamus, strapped to the roof of the car,” she wrote at the time.)
“He felt that was a breach,” she said.
To Ms. Collins’ mind, the running gag brings levity to the election grind, which, given the state of things, can get a little grim.
“If you bring in animals it does cheer people up,” she noted.