Just before the New Year, the Washington Post released an analytical piece entitled, “Who spends the most time (and money) on pets?” The exposé revealed a pandemic spike in pet expenditures, as well as data on the racial and political disparities affecting the pet market. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Horses, Cats, and Chickens: Animal Power and Us,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman talked through the entwinement of politics, finances, and animals in the American story. After the rise of television, nowhere was the sway of animals felt more tangibly than in advertising, and Morris the Cat — the finicky mascot of 9-Lives cat food — came to represent the influence of animals on American public discourse. 

Morris the Cat was born in 1961 near Chicago, eventually ending up in an area shelter in Hinsdale, Illinois. In 1968, an animal trainer and adman named Bob Martwick adopted the cat. A year later, Martwick got Morris a new gig: as the mascot of cat food brand 9-Lives.

9-Lives was a division of StarKist Tuna, which in turn was owned by the famed condiment king the H.J. Heinz Company. The television advertising of the entire Heinz slate was managed by the iconic firm the Leo Burnett Company, where Martwick worked. The firm had already created the animated Charlie the Tuna for StarKist, the company responsible for bringing “Sorry, Charlie” catchphrase into the pop cultural lexicon. 

Morris began a fevered nine-year run for 9-Lives, starring in 40 advertisements. Each spot presented Morris as notoriously “finicky” about his food, but passionately won over by his guardian’s choice of 9-Lives as his cat food. Morris can speak in the ads, and is voiced by the actor John Lee Erwin, implementing a a pretentious tenor for the cat’s lines.

In one spot, Morris leaves his girlfriend Ethel — a White Persian cat — for a can of 9-Lives. In another, Morris waxed nostalgic on why he was so particular, telling the viewer, “The cat who doesn’t act finicky soon loses control of his owner.” 

Morris gained some Hollywood exposure in 1973. He starred in meaty roles in two films: Robert Altman’s 1973 neo-noir The Long Goodbye, as Elliott Gould’s beloved pet, and the lighter Shamus, another detective picture with Burt Reynolds. 

Morris received a PATSY Award, the American Humane Society’s animal equivalent to the Emmys, for his commercial work the same year. Actors Betty White and Allen Ludden presented Morris with his Award in a ceremony that also heavily featured the rat Ben, star of the 1972 film primarily known today for its Michael Jackson theme song

The following year, in 1974, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Daniels penned a tongue-in-cheek book with (or about) Morris, Morris: An Intimate Biography. Daniels wrote as if she could speak directly with Morris, and intimated that the cat was at least mulling a potential career in politics – either as a presidential housepet or a leader himself. In a Watergate tapes double entendre, Daniels wrote, “Once I even heard Morris say that there wouldn’t be any ‘bugs’ in the White House if a cat lived there.” 

Morris seemed to be primed for a more vaunted role. By 1977, Heinz had hired a full-time correspondent to answer Morris’s fan mail, often written in the voices of admirers’ pets. 

Before his ambitions could be realized, however, the original Morris died in July 1978. Flowers streamed into 9-Lives headquarters, and the brand briefly pulled Morris-themed ads from TV while fans mourned. 

Martwick later explained to the Montreal Gazette the relatability that led so many Americans to be moved by Morris’s death: “He represents their cat to most people,” Martwick said. “Practically everybody up here says they have a cat who does something like him.”

The trainer also argued that the cat had been a reputational boon to his species: “He raised the public consciousness about cats, changed their way of thinking about them. Before Morris, many people thought of cats as sneaky varmints. Morris helped people understand their idiosyncrasies.”

Morris biographer Daniels also tied in Morris’s celebrity to a distinctly American finickiness: “He was the ordinary guy who felt he had a right to the very best, a democratic way of thinking on which America is founded.” 

Soon, Martwick — who had remained Morris’ handler throughout his run — had a new, virtually identical Morris starring in 9-Lives campaigns. It was this Morris who would mature into a quasi-political force. 

One of the first Washington figures to invoke Morris was consumer advocate Ralph Nader. During House hearings for the Communications Act of 1979 – an unsuccessful push to deregulate broadcast TV– Nader appeared as a critical witness, proposing stricter rules that would  require each network to give thirty primetime minutes per night for public access content, run by a body he dubbed the Audience Network

As he pushed his idea, Nader routinely negatively referenced Morris’ ubiquity as a symbol of corporate control over the televisual landscape: “‘Morris the Cat’ had more time to communicate its message to 200 million Americans than 200 million Americans had all together to communicate their message vis-a-vis the television network.” 

Nader offered only a vague nod to Morris fans, saying, “It is one thing to be a cat lover; it is another thing to put the cat on a relative pedestal miles and miles above the access rights of millions of Americans.”   

Ignoring the Nader criticism, Morris’s advertisers continued to boost his national profile. In Summer 1987, near the start of an election season that would eventually pit George H.W. Bush against Michael Dukakis, the Heinz top brass and the folks at the Leo Burnett Company decided to go for a big coup: A $20 million, ten-spot ad campaign touting Morris for President. 

The ad team decided to host the presidential announcement ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. They hired Eleanor Mondale, the 26-year-old daughter of Walter Mondale — the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee, Minnesota Senator, and former Carter Vice President — as Morris’s spokesperson and campaign manager. The younger Mondale, famed for her independence, was a rock DJ and critic on Chicago’s WCKG-FM’s “Rock and Roll Morning Show.” 

On August 18th, 1987, ten television cameras encircled Morris the cat as Eleanor Mondale sang his praises, comparing him favorably to other Commanders-in-Chief and even getting a small dig in about the then-high-pitched controversy over Colonel Oliver North’s shredding of papers related to the Iran-Contra Affair: “May I introduce a candidate with the quiet demeanor of a Coolidge, the animal magnetism of a Kennedy, and with the honesty of a Lincoln, a candidate who may shed but will never shred, a candidate who stands foursquare behind the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of din-din.”  

Karen Sophiea, marketing manager of 9-Lives, gave the New York Times a political interpretation of Morris’s appeal, arguing — somewhat counterintuitively given her product — that cats were appropriately self-sufficient: “People today think of their cats as a lot like Morris. Cats are pets of the 80’s. They take care of themselves. Unlike a dog, where you have to feed it, cats fit into people’s lifestyles well. They don’t need much.”   

The campaign included print ads with Morris’s Hoover-inspired slogan: “9-Lives in every bowl and a satisfied cat in every kitchen.” 

A list of punny political positions soon followed. On Iran-Contra: “Any cat would have smelled a rat.” on “Fur-reign Policy”: “Things were simpler when the Persians ran Iran.” On animal rights: “Fur coats should be limited to those who can grow them.” 

Days after the Morris for President rollout, Washington Post political columnist Sidney Blumenthal included the stunt as one of several pieces of evidence for the destruction of the “bozone layer.” The layer, a topical reframing of the then-divisive deterioration of the Ozone Layer, seemingly just meant that a shield against stupid happenings was crumbling. 

Blumenthal argued that the flagging “bozone” was evident in televangelist Jim Bakker’s sexual assault scandal and Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart’s extramarital affair, the increasingly labyrinthine involvements of the Sultan of Brunei and Saudi Arabian billionaire Adnan Khashoggi in the Iran-Contra Affair, and the belief of thousands in a meditation-fueled “harmonic convergence” predicted by New Age leader Jose Arguelles

Morris and Mondale were not spared from Blumenthal’s diatribe: “The bozone shield suddenly vanished over the irradiated National Press Club in Washington, where Morris the Cat’s bid for the presidency was announced by his campaign manager, Eleanor Mondale.”

Yet even as the Washington political establishment belittled Morris’s candidacy, the advertisements barrelled ahead. In one October 1987 spot, Morris participated in a debate put on by the League of Feminine Felines against a Bob Dole-esque human candidate who claimed that all cat food was the same. “What’s to debate? I’m finicky. He’s not,” Morris said as his adversary opened a can of 9-Lives’ Fisherman’s Stew and quickly recognized its superiority. 

In an early 1988 spot, a high-class French waiter appeared in a makeshift Morris for President campaign headquarters in a presidential suite, presenting the cat with a white-tableclothed array of mushy beef, tuna, and veal. “Sorry, Jacques, wrong number,” Morris dismissively responded to the display, before Morris’s handlers popped open a can of 9-Lives instead. 

Morris bowed out of the “campaign” in August 1988, shortly after the party conventions. “We need Morris,” Bill Johnson, the VP of pet food at StarKist, told USA Today, Sometimes in history, great figures are asked to make great sacrifices.” 

Morris ran again in 1992, this time “declaring” in New York City alongside the fully-costumed cast of the Broadway smash musical Cats

By 1994, however, Morris’s flamboyant presidential politics were slowing down. That year, Heinz cut ties with Morris advertising mavens the Leo Burnett Company, citing a shift toward more localized promotional efforts instead of high-profile national advertising campaigns. 

All of Morris’s politicking, however, had clearly kept business in a good place. At the time of the split, 9-Lives controlled some 25% of the cat food market, besting all competitors. 

Whether on the frontier catching rats and gophers or on the television lampooning the national political process, cats continue to provide an illuminating window into the prevailing political and economic winds of the United States. 

For more on the history of American pets and quasi-pets, check out historian Katherine Grier’s 2006 Pets in America

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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