Everyone needs a hobby to help them unwind from the stresses of life – and that goes for U.S. presidents too. It’s well known that many of America’s former leaders were partial to a little golf, but some also pursued pastimes that we might generously describe as “unorthodox.” One, for instance, was known to indulge in a little nude swimming, while another had a knack for cheerleading. These are just the tip of the iceberg, so read on to learn about some of the crazy things that presidents used to get up to in their spare time.
20. The mule breeder
George Washington was of the opinion that mules were fine work animals. After all, he reasoned, they were strong creatures, but they didn’t need as much food to function as horses did. So he decided to start breeding them for himself – and he ended up with a lot of them.
Washington’s mule farm could be traced back to a donkey that he received as a present from Spain’s King Charles III. Aptly named Royal Gift, this donkey mated with a horse and the beginnings of Washington’s mule herd were established. Within 15 years, he owned almost 60 of the equine hybrids.
19. Strutting his stuff
George Washington is known for a lot of things, but not many of us think of him as a top dancer. By all accounts, though, the first president was something of a groovy mover in his day. Washington was adept at the minuet, a haughty sort of dance popular among the upper classes of the time.
Cathy Hellier, a specialist in etiquette from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, has laid out the significance of the minuet. Quoted on the Mount Vernon website, she explained, “Mastery of the minuet was important because this dance began every dance event… It was an exhibition, stepped one couple at a time, in order of social rank – that is, with the highest-ranking gentleman and lady dancing first, and so on down the line. Everyone else watched and commented, often recording their impressions in their diaries.”
18. Jeffersonian architecture
Thomas Jefferson has famously been characterized as the epitome of a Renaissance man, owing to the vast range of his talents and interests. He was multilingual, first of all, but he was also an inventor, archaeologist, musician and writer. But among his favorite pursuits was architecture, which he once described as his “delight.”
Jefferson’s influence as an architect is significant throughout the United States. He’s even been described by historian of architecture Fiske Kimball as “the father of our national architecture.” Many of his designs are still standing today, including the Rotunda in the University of Virginia. And when he served as secretary of state, Jefferson played a huge part in the design of Washington D.C.
17. The skinny dipper
There’s a rumor about John Quincy Adams that maybe you’ve heard? It basically suggests that, while he was president, Adams took a liking to swimming in the waters of the Potomac River – while he was totally naked. There are variations to the tale, but that’s the crux of it. But can we believe it?
This story has been reported by a range of reputable media outlets over the decades, but certain details tend to differ from source to source. So does that mean that it never happened? Well, no. It’s pretty much agreed that Adams really did enjoy skinny dipping in the Potomac, despite the variations in other details.
16. A day at the races
Back at the start of the United States’ history, many presidents were known to enjoy horse racing. But arguably none more so than Andrew Jackson, whose love of gambling on races was infamous. At one stage, he’s even said to have taken part in a duel because of a disagreement caused by a bet.
Jackson even owned a number of horses himself, breeding them back at his home close to Nashville, Tennessee. On top of that, he also maintained a stable on the grounds of the White House during his presidency. Among his horses were those he called Emilie, Bolivia, Busiris and Lady Nashville.
15. Ready to rumble
Abraham Lincoln is widely remembered as having been a strong and capable leader. His political maneuverings and actions have ensured that his legacy remains strong up to the present day. But Lincoln wasn’t just skilled at politics. He was also known to have been a fine wrestler in his younger days.
There’s a story related to Lincoln’s wrestling abilities that claims he once overcame a man named Jack Armstrong in a fight. Armstrong’s accomplices then jumped in, with Lincoln proclaiming that he’d fight them all separately, one after another. Armstrong apparently then intervened, proclaiming that Lincoln had won fair and square. The two then became friends.
14. Heavy hitter
Back in his student days at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt was a boxer. Writing in his memoir, he remembered, “I did a good deal of boxing and wrestling in Harvard, but never attained to the first rank in either, even at my own weight.” But even though he never achieved much success, he nonetheless kept up the hobby in his later life. Apparently, he even used to spar within the White House.
Roosevelt is said to have taken his boxing very seriously, and he picked up some pretty nasty injuries as a result. The worst was arguably when he got hit so severely that he lost the ability of his left eye. He decided to give up the sport after that, deciding that such injuries did not befit a president.
Calvin Coolidge used to enjoy horseback riding – but then he became president. Given that such a pastime can be quite dangerous, the Secret Service reportedly forced Coolidge to give it up. So, the commander-in-chief had to seek out an alternative. And he found it in the form of a man-made, mechanical horse.
This mechanical horse consisted of wood, leather and metal, all bound together. If anything, the end result more closely resembled an ostrich than a horse, but it must have done the job. Coolidge reportedly straddled the thing three times a day, riding it various speeds. Powered by electricity, the “horse” could simulate trotting and even galloping.
12. The stamp collector
As a child, Franklin D. Roosevelt took an interest in stamp collecting that would remain with him for the rest of his life. He even passionately tended to his collection during his presidency, with reports suggesting he saw to it every single day. And when he was suffering with illness, the collection was apparently a great source of comfort.
Roosevelt’s son James once spoke of his father’s hobby, as quoted on the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum website. He recalled, “I have vivid memories of Father sitting at his desk when he had a half-hour or hour with no appointments… with his stamp books and an expression of complete relaxation and enjoyment on his face.”
11. Ike’s paintings
Dwight Eisenhower is widely remembered for his pragmatic nature and muted manner of presenting himself. But behind the scenes it turns out that he actually had something of an artistic flourish. Ike had a knack for painting, and he’d sometimes present his works to pals, rather than trying to sell them.
Eisenhower never harbored any particular ambitions to become known as an artist. It seems, in fact, that he fell into the hobby by accident. Apparently, he once received some painting equipment as a present. So, rather than see it go to waste, he decided to make use of it all – and it turned out that he was quite good.
10. The presidential amphibious car
The 1960s were an innovative time, but one thing that hasn’t exactly stood the test of time is the Amphicar, an automobile capable of traveling both on terrain or along water. Even so, the multifunctional vehicle attracted some famous devotees during its own time. And the most prominent fan, perhaps, was President Lyndon B. Johnson.
With his Amphicar, Johnson is said to have played a trick on visitors to his ranch. He would plant the idea in their heads that the brakes on his car weren’t working, then he’d hop in and take off towards the lake, as if driving an ordinary vehicle. Then, looking as if he was unable to stop from crashing into the water, he’d enter the lake. Of course, the vehicle would then float, thus revealing that his car was amphibious.
9. Bowled over
Richard Nixon is remembered for many things, but his status as a skilled bowler tends to fly under the radar. Yet he and his wife were apparently enamored with the sport. They even went so far as to have an alley installed beneath the White House while he was president.
Nixon apparently favored bowling over other pastimes like golf because it was less time-intensive. But he nonetheless committed plenty of hours to the hobby, once reportedly taking part in 300 games in a row. His highest score in a single game, supposedly, was 232 – which is a more than respectable showing.
8. Going for a dip
Gerald Ford had something of a reputation for his love of swimming, with reports suggesting that he took a dip nearly every single day. In fact, the outdoor pool that can be seen at the White House today was actually installed during Ford’s presidency. It seems that he took his hobby quite seriously then.
Works to create that pool got under way in 1975, outside of the West Wing. And in breaking ground for the project, some fascinating discoveries were made. It turned out that this part of the White House was littered with rubble dating back to 1814, when British soldiers had set fire to the property.
7. Once upon a time
It turns out that Jimmy Carter has quite the imagination, if the title of his children’s book is anything to go by. The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer started its life as a fairytale that the former president used to relay to his young child Amy. But he actually published the story in 1995, with Amy herself providing the illustrations.
Carter’s story opens, “Once upon a time there was a little boy named Jeremy who lived with his mother in a small house near the sea. His mother earned a bare living for the two of them by washing clothes for some of the wealthy families in their town. Jeremy loved her very much.”
6. The cowboy president
Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy were known to be hugely enthusiastic about horses. In fact, it seems as though the former president fancied himself as something of a cowboy. Reagan regularly groomed and rode his horses, and he also put in a lot of physical work to help maintain his ranch.
Reagan’s love of horseback riding meant that he required bodyguards who were also adept at the practice. That way, he could still be protected as he went galloping around his ranch. Having said that, it’s been rumored that the politician sometimes had to help some of his less capable agents.
5. A game of horseshoes
Horseshoe pitching, it’s probably fair to say, is a pretty old-fashioned game. It’s simple, too, requiring players to toss a horseshoe around a stake in the ground. There’s not much to it, but the hobby was adored by George H. W. Bush, who even had a pit for the game built on the grounds of the White House.
Bush seemingly loved a game of horseshoes, and he played against some distinguished opponents. Among those he competed with during his presidency were singer John Denver, British prime minister John Major and even the Queen. It’s unclear whether or not he felt that he had to let the monarch to win.
4. Word play
Bill Clinton has a reputation as a skilled solver of crosswords. He even popped up in a documentary called Wordplay in 2006, where he spoke of the pastime. He said, “At some point in my life, we began to get the Sunday Times. When I was president, I worked no telling how many hundreds and hundreds of crossword puzzles. I find it very relaxing. For a moment you take your mind off whatever you’re doing.”
In 2017 Clinton even got to put together his very own crossword for the New York Times. Together with Arkansas judge Victor Fleming, the former president was given the opportunity to create every aspect of the puzzle. This was a step-up from ten years before, when he was asked to come up with the clues for a crossword.
3. All that jazz
In an apparent stunt to win over younger people, presidential contender Bill Clinton showed off one of his tricks during a 1992 taping of The Arsenio Hall Show. The Arkansas governor took to the stage with his saxophone in hand and proceeded to play. His performance of “Heartbreak Hotel” is widely remembered today.
Clinton had been playing the saxophone for a long while by the time that this episode was broadcast. In fact, he’d started to learn the instrument when he was nine. His passion supposedly remained with him through to his adult life, and he hoped to encourage kids to get into music themselves.
2. Bathroom paintings
In 2013 hackers gained access to a series of files belonging to members of the Bush family. Everything from photos, emails and passwords were recovered by the criminals, but their theft also revealed one of George W. Bush’s pastimes. The former president is a painter, with a variety of works to his name. But this hack notably leaked unfinished self-portraits – of Bush in the bathroom.
Perhaps the most intimate painting is from the perspective of Bush sitting in the bath, staring down at his feet. It’s definitely a personal work that likely wasn’t ever meant to see the light of day. The ex-president has purposely displayed other works, however, including one exhibit depicting injured members of the armed forces.
1. Cheer up
It’s common knowledge that George W. Bush worked in the oil business before he was president. And many of us are also aware that he was once a part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. But did you know that in his younger days he served as a head cheerleader?
Some people have argued that Bush’s stint as a cheerleader actually had value to him in his later political life. After all, the role involves communicating to big crowds of people and trying to charm them. It’s easy to see how useful a skill that would be for a man later campaigning to be president.