R.I.P., Barney: How 'Barney Cam' made George W. Bush's dog a Web star

"Mr. Orr, this is the White House operator."

As a White House spokesman, I received phone calls like this all the time. But this was the first time the president's secretary had ordered me to report to the Oval Office immediately. Before 7 a.m. on a Saturday.

It was December 2003. Iraq was all over the news. We were closing in on the capture of Saddam Hussein. But — and the nation should be thankful — this wasn't my domain.

President George W. Bush had another reason for calling for me now.

Barney Cam.

How it happened

Whenever I'm asked to speak about my tenure in the White House, the conversation always shifts to Barney, the Scottish terrier whom the president regarded as the son he never had.

After Barney died Friday at age 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 Sept. 11. I ran the White House website, and we wanted to use the Internet to better connect with citizens.

Our first attempt to bring people in to the White House — virtually — was a big hit. Millions of viewers went to our site to see President Bush give a personal video tour of the Oval Office.

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.

People liked our videos. People loved Barney. Why not strap a video camera to the first dog's head, chase him through the White House so viewers can 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, where a couple of dozen communication staffers gather to plan the day.

When Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, asked me what was on my agenda, I swallowed hard and then 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."

I smiled.

Dan looked at me as though I'd grown another head.

After about 10 seconds of dead silence, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer chimed in: "That. Is. Awesome."

His validation was all it took.