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Doggone it Barney! You were the star of the show

''MR ORR, this is the White House operator.''

It was December 2003. Iraq was all over the news. But - and the nation should be thankful - this wasn't my domain.

My domain was Barney Cam.

Whenever I'm asked about my time as a White House spokesman, the conversation always shifts to Barney, George Bush's Scottish terrier.

After Barney died on Friday aged 12, I found myself thinking about how he became an internet sensation. In 2002, the White House was still closed to the public after the attacks of September 11, 2001. I ran the White House website, and we wanted to connect with the people.

During a brainstorming session, my deputy, Jane Cook, mentioned that the theme for the White House Christmas was ''All Creatures Great and Small'' - a tribute to presidential pets. Why not strap a video camera to the first dog's head, chase him through the White House so viewers could see the Christmas decorations from his vantage point, and stream it over the internet?


I decided to pitch the idea at the morning communications meeting in the West Wing. When the counsellor to the president, Dan Bartlett, asked me what was on my agenda, I said: ''As you know, Dan, White House tours are still closed due to terrorist concerns and, the theme for this year's Christmas at the White House is All Creatures Great and Small.

''So, it's only logical that we have a Barney Cam, Dan, which is where we strap a video camera on Barney's head and have him run through the White House looking at decorations while Christmas music is playing in the background.''

After about 10 seconds of dead silence, press secretary Ari Fleischer said: ''That. Is. Awesome.'' His validation was all it took. There was only one problem, I had fully expected to be turned down.

Laura Bush's press secretary Noelia Rodriguez called me 30 minutes later to say Mrs Bush loved Barney Cam. ''She's going to show the video at the children's hospital instead of reading a Christmas book for the kids,'' she said.

''Whoa, Noelia,'' I said. ''This is just a theory.'' She told me to turn on CNN and, there was the first lady saying she would be introducing a cute video starring Barney at the hospital in two weeks. ''Get it together,'' Noelia said.

We found a lipstick-size camera to attach to Barney's collar. But Barney didn't wear a collar. Some dogs have microchips but Barney had the Secret Service and when we put a collar on him he lay down and started howling.

''The president loves Barney like a son,'' the White House groundskeeper and caretaker of presidential pets Dale Haney said. '' If he hears Barney howling like that, he's gonna think you're torturing him.''

We removed the collar. Instead, we had a couple of people chase Barney around the White House on their knees with a video camera.

The three main news networks carried the entire four-minute video live. We put the video on the White House website and there were more than 1 million downloads that afternoon. This was in 2002, pre-YouTube.

As Christmas approached the following year, White House colleagues began asking what we would do for an encore. To make the sequel complete, we really needed the president, but that seemed unlikely. Bartlett said Bush had a lot on his plate - Iraq, Saddam Hussein, the economy. He wasn't going to ask him.

But at 6.30am on Saturday I was awakened by a phone call from Bush's secretary, Ashley Estes, saying: ''The president wants to film Barney Cam II.''

When I arrived at the White House, Barney was in position and the president and his personal assistant, Blake Gottesman, were walking out to the South Lawn. Blake asked me to brief the president.

''Barney has been ordered by the White House chief of staff to put up the holiday decorations, but he'd rather play with his ball,'' I said. ''If you could lecture Barney about the importance of hard work, that would be great, sir.'' The president nodded and said: ''Yeah, I can do that.''

One week later, the president would announce that Saddam Hussein had been captured.

These days President Barack Obama's dog, Bo, has his own Christmas videos.

But Barney was the first. He let Americans, forget their problems, if only for a little while.

Jimmy Orr is the Los Angeles Times's managing editor, digital.