THIS IS A TIME FOR TAKING STOCK AND SETTING GOALS. SO, AS President Clinton headed to Hilton Head, S.C., for a New Year's holiday retreat, he told reporters on Air Force One what he hoped to accomplish in 1998: lasting peace—between his cat and dog. "When I get back," said Clinton, who brought along his new chocolate Lab, Buddy, but left Socks at home, "it's my first project."

From George Washington (who had 36 dogs) to George Bush (whose memoirs were outsold by Millie's), American presidents—or roughly 36 out of 41 of them—have fawned over four-legged friends. A dog "can have great political importance," says Roy Rowan, coauthor of First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Best Friends. "It humanizes a President." Before Nixon made Checkers a household name, FDR talked about his "little dog Fala" in a fireside chat to gain sympathy amidst Republican attacks. Lyndon Johnson—lambasted for lifting his beagles by their ears—saw his canines "upstage the First Family," says Lady Bird Johnson's former press secretary Liz Carpenter. The dogs, she says, "were terrible publicity hounds."

Sometimes, though, even in the White House, dogs will be dogs. Teddy Roosevelt's bull terrier Pete once tore the pants of a visiting French ambassador. Grits, Amy Carter's mutt, refused to allow a vet to give him a blood test during a Heartworm Awareness Week photo op. Heidi, the Eisenhowers' weimaraner, was banished to Ike's farm in Gettysburg, notes Rowan, "because she left stains on the [White House] carpet." And last month a visibly tired Clinton was reportedly heard muttering, "Damn dog. Keeping me up all night."

So what kind of First Dog will Buddy be? He is "smart, eager to please, very laid back," says his trainer Greg Strong. Rowan expects Buddy to live up to his name. "It's a big dog that will photograph well with him," he says. "The dog will become a celebrity."