You've Heard Of Air Force One, But What About The Floating White House?

The tradition of creating a floating White House began in the years before air travel was a thing, and numerous presidential yachts were commissioned in the 19th and early 20th centuries to allow presidents to govern off-shore.

In the 1870s, presidents began using yachts to travel down the Potomac River and around the Chesapeake Bay while conducting official business (per Richard Elis, "Presidential Travel"). In the years that followed, a series of increasingly splendid presidential ships played host to some surprisingly momentous events, from Richard Nixon's decision to resign to JFK's 46th birthday bash. Presidential boats were used for both work and leisure, providing a peaceful floating island far away from the world of Washington.

Sadly the tradition died in the 20th century, however. By the 1970s owning a luxury yacht seemed less practical and more frivolous, so Jimmy Carter decided to sell off the SS Sequoia in 1977. After serving as a tourist attraction for a while, it was allowed to rust and became a home for a family of raccoons. It was purchased for restoration for $0 by an investment group in 2019, according to Insider.

Pleasure boat diplomacy

Presidential adventures in yachting officially began with USS Dispatch in 1880, a boat that was handed over to Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and President Grover Cleveland by the U.S. Navy (per Power and Motoryacht). The Dispatch's biggest claim to fame is that Cleveland used the yacht to open the Statue of Liberty in 1886, and it seems to have served its purpose well because after that eight more presidential yachts were created and put to use over the course of the next century.

Many presidential boats were used to host groundbreaking diplomatic missions. The end of the Russo-Japanese War was negotiated on the USS Dolphin for example, and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev met with Richard Nixon on the USS Sequoia. During the height of WWII, Winston Churchill had a critical secret meeting with Franklin D. Roosevelt on the USS Potomac. The yachts provided a way to introduce an element of comfort and style to official meetings, a worthy place to entertain foreign dignitaries.

Each incarnation of the seaborne presidential office was slightly different than the last, keeping in step with the times in which they were used. The 275-foot USS Mayflower favored by Teddy Roosevelt for example was built for luxury; the interior was decorated with white and gold panels, and the washrooms included some swanky marble bathtubs. On the other hand, fearful of German U-boats during the Second World War, the USS Potomac was built using steel and was successfully reinforced by the navy to protect the president while at sea.

Love affairs and boat parties

At times, certain presidents used the floating White House for less official purposes. Many presidential yachts ultimately served as a means for politicians to escape the pressures of governing altogether. Theodore Roosevelt for example kept two boats in tow, one for business and one — a smaller boat, named the USS Sylph — for leisure. John F. Kennedy also kept a whole fleet of ships to serve his various needs — the Honey Fitz, the Manitou, and the Sequoia. Kennedy seems to have been particularly fond of boating expeditions, and a rumor persists that Marilyn Monroe spent some time in Kennedy's bathtub on the Manitou, per Power and Yacht.

Probably the most salacious confirmed non-presidential business to take place on any yacht was Woodrow Wilson's seduction of his second wife on board the deck of the USS Mayflower. According to History, He impressed the new first lady there and won her hand via a series of romantic boat rides, just a year after his first wife's death.

Finally, more than a few enviable parties took place aboard an array of presidential ships. On one occasion, sick of his responsibilities Harry S. Truman ordered the crew of the USS Williamsburg to take him down to Bermuda — while there he spent an enjoyable few days playing poker and fishing. Then of course there was Kennedy's birthday party in 1963, on board the SS Sequoia. The apparently pretty wild event was awash with celebrities and champagne and saw the President doing the twist with Jackie Kennedy while Ted Kennedy roamed the deck with half his pants missing, per Power and Yacht.