Presidential Pasttimes

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Dwight D. Eisenhower golfing in Rhode Island (1957)

Like all people, Presidents need relaxation. Over the years, our Presidents have participated in a great variety of sports and hobbies while in the White House. Some were famous for their hobbies, such as Dwight Eisenhower for his golf, Ronald Reagan for horseback riding and John Kennedy for sailing and touch football. Others have been less well known, such as Calvin Coolidge and his Indian clubs.

Although we are going to look at the sports and hobbies of the Presidents during their terms of office, it is worth mentioning that a few of our Presidents, in their younger days, participated and excelled in college sports. The greatest of these would probably be Gerald Ford who played football for the University of Michigan in the early 1930s. He was selected as Most Valuable Player in 1934 and was named an All-American, the only President to win this distinction. After college, he was offered contracts by several professional teams.

Dwight Eisenhower played football for the United States Military Academy at West Point where he was known as “The Kansas Cyclone” and ran seventy yards in a game against Yale in 1912. A knee injury in his second year ended his football career (but not his military career).

Teddy Roosevelt was a member of the Harvard boxing team during his undergraduate days, and John Kennedy was a member of the Harvard swim team during his college days there. Jimmy Carter was a member of the cross-country team at the Naval Academy.

Surprisingly, few of our Presidents have had much musical ability or experience. Thomas Jefferson and John Tyler played the violin, and Harry Truman and Richard Nixon played the piano. In fact, Harry Truman once joked that if he had not gone into politics, he would have probably become the “piano player at a bawdy house.” Calvin Coolidge played the harmonica, Warren Harding played the alto horn and cornet, and Bill Clinton played the saxophone.

It is during their terms as President that the relaxation of sports and hobbies becomes so important and so difficult to enjoy. In this article, we will look at the hobbies and sports of the men in the White House during their term.

George Washington, true to the times and his class, enjoyed fishing and horseback riding. He found great relaxation in the out-of-doors, and enjoyed getting away from the pressures of office.

Washington’s successor, John Adams, apparently had no specific hobbies during his term as President, and engaged in no sports. That may have had something to do with the portly Adams’ nickname of “His Rotundity.”

Thomas Jefferson continued to enjoy music, playing the violin. He also enjoyed walking, fishing and horseback riding. As President, he continued to study a variety of sciences, especially natural history and languages, especially in connection with the Lewis and Clark expedition through the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.

Both James Madison and James Monroe had no known hobbies and engaged in no known sports while serving as President.

John Quincy Adams, unlike his father, had several hobbies during his one term in the White House, and a couple of them got him into trouble. He was an avid billiard player, and purchased a billiard table for the White House at his own expense. When he ran for re-election in 1828, the Democrats accused him of purchasing a “gaming table” at government expense.

John Quincy Adams also enjoyed walking and swimming every morning in good weather. This, too, presented a problem for him. The Federal City, as it was then called, occupied only a small portion of the District of Columbia, with much of the rest being woods and fields with little or no population. Adams was in the habit of swimming in the nude in the Potomac River. One morning, a reporter named Anne Royall, who had been trying to get an interview with the President, followed him to the riverbank and waited for him to enter the river. She sat on his clothing, refusing to let him out of the river until she got her interview. Adams gave her the interview while neck-deep in the Potomac River.

Jackson, older and frail by the time he moved into the White House, enjoyed horseback riding as his principal sport during his two terms as President. His successor Martin Van Buren also enjoyed riding.

The next three Presidents – – – William Henry Harrison, John Tyler and James K. Polk – – – had no known sports or hobbies during their tenure as President.

Zachary Taylor, like several Presidents before him, enjoyed riding as his principal form of recreation. A career army officer and war hero, he kept his Mexican War mount, Whitey, at the White House. Whitey was given the freedom of the White House lawn, but tourists began plucking a hair of his tail as a souvenir. Eventually, Whitey had to be kept elsewhere, away from souvenir hunting tourists.

Presidents Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan were among those who engaged in no known hobbies or sports while they served in the White House.

President Abraham Lincoln walked as much as possible, for both exercise and relaxation. He continued to enjoy wrestling and also “townball” which was also known as stickball. Townball was an early version of baseball, and was popular among the troops during the Civil War.

Andrew Johnson is another of the Presidents with no known hobbies or sports, although he did raise pet mice while in the White House.

Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877), hero of the Civil War, had several hobbies he enjoyed. He was an excellent rider, and enjoyed a good ride through the park. Unfortunately, he also enjoyed riding too fast, and was once stopped and given a ticket for reckless riding in an area meant for pedestrians in Rock Creek Park. He also enjoyed billiards and was an excellent player. Often, the male guests after dinner would retire to the billiards room Grant had built in the White House. (The billiards table did not prove a problem to Grant as it had to John Quincy Adams.) Grant was also an avid swimmer.

Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) enjoyed croquet and shooting. He also enjoyed a new hobby called driving. Automobiles were a new invention not yet popular, and Hayes drove one of the new contraptions whenever he could.

James A. Garfield (1881-1881) was, like Grant, a billiards player and made good use of the billiards room created by Grant.

After Garfield’s death from an assassin’s bullet, Chester Arthur (1881-1885) moved in to the White House. Arthur refused to move in, however, until the White House had been completely redecorated. His only hobby was fishing, which he did at every opportunity. Actually, Arthur was a well known fisherman before he became President, and the sport received a great deal of publicity as a result of his enthusiasm for the sport.

Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897) was also an avid fisherman. One story goes that on the night the Democratic convention would vote to re-nominate him in 1892, Cleveland seemed more concerned with his fishing than the voting of the convention. At a crucial point in the balloting, Cleveland suddenly declared, “I forgot to dry my lines today.” He then went out back to hang up his fishing lines while the crucial vote from the New York delegation was being announced.

Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) was an enthusiastic hunter his entire life, and this continued while he was in the White House. One of the first Presidents to be closely covered by the media, many pictures of Harrison on hunting trips appeared in the papers.

William McKinley (1897-1901) enjoyed riding, swimming and walking, but he was never what one would call an exercise buff. With McKinley, they were hobbies, not sports.

Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) was one of our most physically active Presidents. Only 42 when he took office, Teddy had always been an advocate of what he called “the active life.” Among the vigorous hobbies and sports Teddy enjoyed while in the White House were boxing, hunting, jujitsu, riding, shooting, tennis, wrestling and walking. His exploits as a hunter were reported in newspapers and magazines, and his famous refusal to shoot a helpless bear cub led to the invention of the teddy bear. For amusement, he and his children often shot at targets with the pictures of world leaders on them. Teddy had been a member of the Harvard boxing team while in college, and continued to enjoy the sport for the rest of his life. In one incident that did not become known until after he left the White House, Teddy went blind in one eye as a result of a boxing blow from a military aide.

But Teddy was most famous for his “walks.” When Teddy and his friends set out for a walk, they chose a direction, and let almost nothing alter their course. They would climb trees and fences, and swim across rivers and streams rather than go around an obstacle. Even a walk, for Teddy, became a physical challenge.

William Howard Taft (1909-1913) was a very large man, and our heaviest President. His weight varied from 300 to 360 pounds at various times during his career. In his first days in the White House, he got stuck in the bathtub, and a special tub had to be made and installed for his use. Still, he was a graceful dancer and played tennis well. He also enjoyed riding, even if the horse didn’t. When Taft was Governor of the Philippines, word reached Washington that his health was suffering in the tropical heat. Secretary of War Elihu Root cabled Taft asking about his health. Taft replied that his health was fine and he was standing the heat well. In fact, Taft cabled, he had just that day ridden twenty-five miles into the mountains and back and stood the trip well. Root cabled back, “How is the horse?” But Taft’s favorite pastime was playing golf. Teddy Roosevelt advised him against it, but when Taft refused to give it up, Teddy told him at least not to have his picture taken playing the game.

Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) also enjoyed golf, as well as riding, swimming and walking (regular walking, that is). Wilson was another in a string of Presidents associated with golf.

Warren Harding (1921-1923) enjoyed riding, and was yet another of the golfing Presidents. But his favorite pastime by far was poker. While he was President, there were almost nightly games in the White House. Liquor was served during these games, in spite of prohibition. Many deals were concluded during these card games, including the transfer of oil reserve lands from the Navy Department to the Department of the Interior. This was the beginning of the infamous Teapot Dome Scandals.

Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) enjoyed a variety of activities, some very unique. Like other Presidents, Coolidge enjoyed golf, fishing and trap shooting (shooting at clay pigeons with a shotgun). For exercise, he rode a mechanical horse and pitched hay. Coolidge also exercised with Indian clubs, a form of exercise very popular earlier in our history. Indian clubs are basically elongated, heavy pins that resemble bowling pins. These pins would be swung in various patterns as a means of exercise.

Another unusual form of Presidential exercise was the medicine ball enjoyed by Herbert Hoover (1929-1933). This heavy ball would be used to play a strenuous game of catch as a means of building strength and endurance. Hoover often had his cabinet and advisors join him for an early morning game of medicine ball and then breakfast. They became known as the “medicine ball cabinet.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945), confined to a wheelchair, enjoyed fishing and sailing, and especially swimming which was a regular part of his exercise regimen. In 1933, Roosevelt had an indoor pool built in the White House to enable him to continue his swimming exercises on a daily basis. He also spent a great deal of time with his stamp collection.

Harry Truman (1945-1953) enjoyed fishing and swimming, but also enjoyed playing the piano and playing poker with his political friends. Truman’s favorite form of exercise was walking. He was known for his daily walks, often accompanied by reporters, which were conducted at a brisk pace of 120 paces per minute. This was a practice he continued long after he left the White House. He would often direct his walks in the direction of a place where he could “strike a blow for liberty” (take a drink).

Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) enjoyed fishing, golf and hunting as well as playing bridge, which he did frequently. Eisenhower was also known for his hobby of painting, and he set up a studio in the White House so he could continue his hobby.

John Kennedy (1961-1963) was famous for his athletic recreation. While President, the newspapers and magazines often had pictures and stories of the Kennedy clan sailing, swimming and playing touch football.

Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969), who became President after Kennedy was assassinated, was raised in the rural south. He enjoyed the activities typical of a boy raised on a farm such as fishing, hunting and riding. During his Presidency, Johnson spent as much time as possible on his ranch in Texas where he could relax and enjoy the outdoors.

Richard Nixon (1969-1974) was an avid golfer, and also enjoyed bowling.

Gerald Ford (1974-1977) was the only President to be an All-American Athlete in college. As President, he enjoyed golf, jogging, sailing, shooting, skiing and swimming, all of which he did rather well. In spite of his athletic prowess, he was portrayed as clumsy in the national media. After he left the White House, he continued to play in pro-am golf tournaments for charity.

Since then, our more recent Presidents have been followed and photographed as they played and relaxed. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) was another of our more athletic Presidents. He enjoyed swimming, canoeing and fishing. He also played softball and tennis, and enjoyed jogging and skiing. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) was our oldest President, but you wouldn’t know it from his physical activities. He enjoyed riding, and did so as often as possible on his ranch in California. He also chopped wood on his ranch. While in the White House, he regularly went swimming. George Bush (1989-1993) brought the game of horseshoes to the White House, having a horseshoe court installed on the White House lawn. After leaving the White House, he took one or two well-publicized parachute jumps as he learned skydiving. A navy fighter pilot in World War II (and the youngest commissioned officer in the navy during the war), he had been shot down on more than one occasion. He said of his first skydive that he had done it before, but never on purpose. Bill Clinton (1993-2001) was well known for his jogging and playing golf, both of which he continues today.

Our Presidents have engaged in the same variety of hobbies, sports and relaxation activities as the public they have represented. In fact, their activities have been a good reflection of their times, although one or two have found truly unusual pastimes. We can only wait and see what the future holds in store.