15. President Taft was obsessed with the game of golf
William Howard Taft was the first American president to admit playing golf while in office, and he played a lot of it during his single term as president. At the time golf was considered a game fit for only the idle rich, due to the time needed to complete a single round. Though Taft was the first to admit playing the game, Roosevelt likely preceded him as a golfing president, doing so covertly. For Taft the game became all-encompassing; he golfed in exhibitions with celebrities and in private groups of friends. “My advice to the middle-aged and older men, who have never played golf, is to take it up”, Taft told The American Golfer Magazine, adding “It will be a rest and recreation from business cares…”
President Taft also relaxed by napping, another practice which he performed publicly. Taft was often reported to be sleeping at public events, including at concerts, in theaters, and regularly while attending church services. Taft was reported as nodding off at the dinner table by more than one guest, including Senator James Watson of Indiana, who wrote that the president’s head, “would fall over on his breast and he would go sound asleep for ten or fifteen minutes”.
16. Woodrow Wilson found the Presidential Yacht relaxing
Woodrow Wilson also enjoyed the game of golf as president, though he wasn’t particularly good at it, despite attempting to play the year around. In winter the president was seen on the White House lawn, even in snow, hitting a golf ball that he had painted black, according to some sources. In the warm months, he found relaxation cruising on the Potomac and in Chesapeake Bay on the Presidential Yacht, USS Mayflower, which was operated by the United States Navy. He also availed himself of the White House stables, keeping horses to ride for recreation and relaxation.
Woodrow Wilson was also a talented impersonator, though some of his impersonations added to his reputation of being openly racist on a later day. He impersonated black accents of the rural south, as well as drunken Irishmen, parsimonious Scotsmen, and others, to amuse guests and friends at the White House. Wilson was the first president to travel overseas while in office, following a brief vacation in Bermuda he sailed to Europe in a German-built vessel seized by the United States, SS George Washington.
17. Warren G. Harding enjoyed golf and poker, as well as womanizing
Long before he became president, Warren G. Harding discovered the game of golf, and played it often, including among his partners the Undersecretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had not yet been stricken with polio. Harding also enjoyed poker, and played frequently with friends at the White House, including several of his cronies who were involved in the many scandals which wracked his administration. Those friends became known in the press as his “Poker Cabinet”. Not reported in the press was that the games were frequently accompanied with whiskey, despite Prohibition being the law of the land.
Harding played poker so often that a rumor emerged that he wagered a set of White House china from the 19th century on a hand, which he lost. According to Alice Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt and a long-time Washington socialite, the set had been obtained during the presidency of Benjamin Harrison. Mrs. Longworth described the poker games as being littered with “every imaginable brand of whiskey”. One frequent player, Charles Forbes, was later convicted for allowing drugs and alcohol meant for Veterans Hospitals to be diverted to bootleggers.
18. Herbert Hoover built the first presidential retreat in Virginia
Herbert Hoover was a successful and wealthy mining engineer and entrepreneur before he entered public service, and in that role, he learned to love camping and fishing. As president, he wanted a site not too far from Washington where he could relax and take his ease. Virginia’s Shenandoah region beckoned, and Hoover purchased a tract on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hoover paid for the land with his own money and intended to pay for the construction of the 13 buildings it would grow to, but in the end, he allowed the US Marine Corps to erect the facility as part of their training.
Camp Rapidan it was called, and Hoover used it for extended breaks from the heat and humidity of a Washington summer, while remaining in contact with the government. The president relaxed by fishing, riding, and simply enjoying the views at the rustic site. Hoover donated the camp to the Commonwealth of Virginia before leaving office in 1933, with the expressed hope that it would continue to be used as a summer retreat for the president. His successor, FDR, found the site too rugged to be navigated by his wheelchair.
19. Franklin Roosevelt built a formidable stamp collection
Before polio took away his use of his legs, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a dedicated athlete, swimming, playing golf and tennis, and other sports. He continued to swim after recovering from the first attack of polio, in the belief that it would help strengthen his legs. But his favorite hobby, one on which he worked nearly every day, was his stamp collection. He relaxed with it in the Oval Office, in his private study, while traveling on Navy ships and the Presidential yacht, and whenever he had a bit of spare time to give it his attention. He began collecting stamps at the age of eight. He continued to the day he died.
Roosevelt wasn’t concerned with the financial value of the stamps he collected. He treasured his hobby because the stamps reflected both history and geography, subjects of lifelong interest. Roosevelt cheerfully admitted that nearly 80% of his collection had no particular value at all, calling the stamps “scrap”. By the time of his death in April, 1945, his collection included 1.2 million stamps, all categorized and collated with meticulous care. After his death, the collection was sold at auction, with the stamps given to him officially by foreign governments retained. They are now in the Roosevelt Library.
20. Truman enjoyed walking and playing poker and the piano
Harry Truman, like other presidents before him, was a dedicated poker player, which he enjoyed as relaxation at the White House, aboard his yacht USS Williamsburg, and at his preferred presidential retreat, the Little White House at Key West. His famous sign reading The Buck Stops Here referred not to the dollar, but to the buck passed between dealers in a poker game. Truman also enjoyed bourbon during his playing (and at other times throughout the day), and was reportedly a good, but not a great player. Truman and his playing cronies once had Winston Churchill as a guest in their game.
Churchill lost steadily, to the point where the president directed the other players during break to give the Englishman a break and let him win a few hands. Besides playing poker, Truman also played the piano, and enjoyed performing before an audience from time to time. His most famous means of recreation was his fondness for brisk walks, often with a train of reporters struggling to record the president’s thoughts and keep up with his pace. Truman enjoyed deep sea fishing while at Key West, but more for the camaraderie involved than the taking of game fish.
21. Eisenhower was the president most associated with golf for many years
Dwight Eisenhower enjoyed golf before his presidency, and it became his favorite form of recreation while he occupied the White House. He played as frequently as he could, and it was he who built a putting green on the White House Lawn. But golf was far from the president’s only form of relaxation. He too enjoyed playing cards, but it was the game of bridge, rather than poker, to which he took a fancy. Eisenhower made it a requirement of his staff officers during the Second World War that they are able to play bridge, and play it well. One bridge expert played at the White House and reported that Ike played bridge better than he did golf.
Eisenhower also enjoyed painting, creating over 250 oil paintings beginning with his association with Columbia University in 1948. He painted a few portraits, but the majority of his paintings were landscapes. Eisenhower also enjoyed grilling while visiting Camp David and while at the White House, usually grilling thick steaks for family and guests, using his own special seasonings. When he read for relaxation he preferred western novels, with those of Zane Grey a particular favorite. After retiring to his Gettysburg farm Ike raised prize-winning cattle.
22. Jack Kennedy preferred swimming, sailing, and smoking cigars
President Kennedy loved the water his entire life and spent as much of his time as he could either on or in it. He came from an athletic family, but problems with his back limited his ability to participate too strenuously in the famous touch football games at the Kennedy compound. He did play golf as president, not as often as his predecessor, but according to some, he was a better player than Eisenhower. But it was to the water he turned for relaxation, sometimes sailing himself in family-owned boats and yachts, and often aboard the official Presidential Yacht, USS Sequoia. He also used the Honey Fitz.
Kennedy valued the time aboard Sequoia because it was free from the press and photographers. He spent his last birthday aboard the yacht in May 1963, and he was scheduled to host a cruise accompanied with Jackie and close friends on November 24 of that year. Instead, his body lay in State in Washington on that day. Kennedy also was fond of Camp David, and he purchased an estate to use as a retreat near Middleburg, in Virginia’s horse country. After Kennedy’s assassination, the logs and records of his use of the Presidential Yacht were destroyed for reasons officially never disclosed.
23. Lyndon Johnson liked to frighten guests at his Texas ranch with his Amphicar
Like most 20th century presidents, Lyndon Johnson loved to drive his own car, an impossibility in Washington. For relaxation, Johnson preferred to visit his ranch, where there were several vehicles available for him to drive, accompanied by his guests. They were his toys, and he loved playing with them, particularly his white Lincoln convertible, which he would drive about the property, happily swigging scotch and soda. Johnson also had a 1934 Ford with a bar in the back seat, which he used for hunting on his property, and a 1915 fire truck on which he liked to ring the bell.
His favorite vehicle for terrorizing his guests was his Amphicar. Amphicars were built in Germany during the 1960s, and fewer than 4,000 were built, but Johnson managed to get his hands on one. The car was designed to operate on roads and on water, with screw propellers engaged it could cross water, though it could not achieve much in the way of speed. Johnson enjoyed approaching the lake on his ranch down a steep grade, before shouting that the brakes weren’t working, crashing into the water while his passengers panicked, before serenely continuing on with the sound of the president’s laughter in their ears.
24. Richard Nixon brought bowling back to the White House
A bowling alley was installed in the White House during the Truman Administration, though Truman did not care for the sport. It was used by staff with his approval, but in 1955 during the Eisenhower Administration, it was moved across the street to the Executive Office Building. When Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1969 he ordered another bowling alley installed, underground near the North Portico. The alley built for Nixon was a single lane and was paid for by friends of the president and Mrs. Nixon, both of whom were avid bowlers. They used the bowling alley often.
Bowling was not Nixon’s only means of relaxing during his presidential terms. He took up golf as Eisenhower’s vice president and played during his presidency, but the socializing which is a large part of golf made him uncomfortable. He enjoyed watching professional football and even designed plays which he gave to Miami Dolphins head coach Don Shula before Super Bowl VI. Nixon allegedly called Redskins head coach George Allen with play suggestions as well, though confirmation by any of the parties involved was never forthcoming.
25. Gerald Ford relaxed with exercise, sports, and parlor games
Ford was the first man to enter the Oval Office as President without having been elected as either president or vice president. His presidency followed one of the nation’s greatest political scandals, and was controversial from the start. After he pardoned Richard Nixon cries of a corrupt deal were loud and long. Ford found solace in participating in sports. He made frequent use of the White House swimming pool, as well as the pool installed by Nixon at Camp David. He also played tennis and golf and made several skiing trips during his short tenure in office. Ford was also an avid reader.
For relaxation, while in the White House residence, Ford was another stamp collector, though his collection was never as extensive as FDR’s, and he did not dedicate as much time to the hobby as his predecessor had. He played bridge, as well as other card games, and collected pipes, which he smoked throughout his presidency. To date, he was the last pipe smoker to occupy the White House. Ford was a gifted athlete, though some poorly timed falls during his presidency left many with the impression that he was clumsy. He enjoyed ballroom dancing, which is a clear indication that he was anything but.
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