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All the President's Ships: Presidential Vacations Were Better When They Belonged to the Sea

Anders Hove

America is fascinated with celebrities, Stacey E. Blau tells us in a recent column ["Preoccupation with Celebrity Is Pathetic," August 25], and if anyone in this country is a celebrity, the president is. I don't see presidential celebrity as an entirely bad thing. Better this presidential preoccupation than a world where few people even know the president's name.

On the other hand, the presidential vacation has become an absolutely horrific experience for all involved. President Clinton was so eager to stem the tide of local criticism this summer that he preemptively announced a "theme" for his vacation: his New England holiday, he claimed, would serve to remind the nation of his commitment to the environment. The press and public reacted to this statement with the appropriate disgust, and now it seems the annual presidential retreat has reached its nadir in the eyes of the public.

All this makes me feel a wave of nostalgia for the presidential yacht. A yacht says presidential like no New England island or seaport. A fine ship is a memory of a time when presidents were normal people, when the themes of presidential vacations were always the same: rest and relaxation.

Let me take you back to the summer of 1946. We are aboard the new presidential yacht, a former gunboat named the Williamsburg, sailing in the cool waters of Chesapeake Bay. President Harry S. Truman has just spoken to the press. He intends to spend most of the vacation sleeping, he says, although he hopes to find time for some old-fashioneds with lots of Kentucky bourbon. Asked if he'll play any cards, Truman replies that he doesn't know much about it, but he's heard of one game where one card is dealt down, with four more up, "and then you bet"

President Truman found needed solace aboard the Williamsburg, even in the midst of some stressful world situations. The year 1946, for example, brought the first signs of confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, as well as a railroad strike that threatened to paralyze the nation. Truman needed to get away from it all, and yacht trips were just the ticket.

Although the president made no pretense of doing actual work aboard the Williamsburg, the voyages quickly became a Washington institution. Because the press tagged along in a separate yacht, the pols aboard the Williamsburg could let their hair down and really get to know each other.

Truman's favorite social activity aboard the Williamsburg was poker. The guests were expected to pony up $500 to enter the game. Frequent Williamsburg poker players included Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Fred Vinson. The presence of all three branches of government at the poker table made these games easily the most prestigious in the country.

The Williamsburg swiftly became a symbol of having arrived as a political force. Speaker Rayburn, for instance, brought his protege, Lyndon B. Johnson, on several poker-playing voyages aboard the Williamsburg. Johnson would be playing politics long after the last Williamsburg poker stash dried up.

The golden age of presidential yachting came to an end in 1953 with the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike was only aboard the Williamsburg once before he ordered it decommissioned and sold. The yacht was transferred to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in 1962, and later became a hotel-restaurant-museum in Salem River, New Jersey.

The sale of the Williamsburg didn't sink the idea of the presidential yacht. A presidential yacht from FDR's days, the Sequoia, occasionally hosted President Nixon during the stressful days of Watergate. And, of course, every president since Truman has spent vacation time aboard yachts owned by their own wealthy friends, and many presidents have made significant voyages about commissioned naval vessels of all sizes.

The heady days of Williamsburg R&R can never return. As it is, we seem doomed to witness annual holiday flops, each one rivaling the last in excess and stress. The yacht, on the other hand, is both a practical means to presidential relaxation and a worthy symbol of state. Future presidents would do well to choose a yacht over our poor New England isles.