Without a doubt, being President is the hardest job in the world. (With the possible exception of being the dean's secretary.) With such a hard job, it is no wonder that our Presidents have tried to relax as hard as they work. Sometimes, their hobbies and pets have bordered on the bizarre.
For relaxation, Calvin Coolidge enjoyed playing with his pet pygmy hippopotamus, John Quincy Adams liked to scare guests with his pet alligator, and Theodore Roosevelt kept a whole damn zoo: packs of dogs, a clowder of cats, a dozen horses, a macaw, a rat, two kangaroos, an owl, several roosters, five snakes, a hyena, a coyote, a raccoon, a lion, a zebra, a flying squirrel, five bears, and enough snakes to frighten Indiana Jones several times over. Oh, yeah!...And a badger. (When T.R. left office, incoming President Taft said, "Badgers? Badgers! We don't need no stinkin' badgers!")
Pets have not been the only presidential diversions. Thomas Jefferson kept a skeleton of a mammoth in the White House and amused himself by trying to piece it back together. Zachary Taylor was proud of being able to spit tobacco with deadly accuracy and Chester Arthur had a monster rummage sale of furniture and knickknacks left by his predecessors that netted him an impressive $8,000. None of the stuff he sold was "his", but everybody has to have a hobby, right?.
Many of our presidents played sports when they were young, and continued to do so once in the Oval Office . Nixon played baseball in college, and followed the game closely the rest of his life. After he lost the California gubernatorial election in 1962, he was offered the job of Major League Baseball Commissioner. I wonder how history would have been different if he had accepted the job.
Dwight Eisenhower was a star player in both baseball and football. His sports career was cut short when West Point played the Carlisle Indians in 1913 and Ike unwisely cut in the way of their star player on his way to a touchdown. Future Olympian superstar Jim Thorpe broke Ike's leg so badly that the future president had to switch to golf as a sport.
This is just a blog, so we don't have the space to list all the sports that Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed while president. The White House had a shooting range, a tennis court, and a boxing ring, but the sport that might surprise you is "stilting". You know—walking on tall wooden stilts. Evidently, it was something the whole family enjoyed.
Today, there are a lot of sport facilities at the White House, including a jogging track, a pool, a tennis court that doubles as a basketball court, a pool table, a putting green, and an exercise room. Less well known is that the White House also has a bowling alley...or two...or several.
Harry Truman was a part-time bowler, and in 1947, added a two-lane bowling alley on the ground floor of the West Wing. It there stayed until Eisenhower had the alley moved to the Old Executive Office Building across the street, so space in the West Wing could be used to move in one of those new-fangled mimeograph machines. Today, that space is used for the Situation Room, where the long lanes have been replaced with long conference tables and the walls are covered with monitors. This is the room where President Obama watched the strike on the bin Laden compound.
The newer alley is still across the street, and while not exactly open to the public, it has been used by thousands of bowlers over the years. Named the Harry Truman Bowling Alley, it was used frequently by President Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson. President Nixon, definitely the most avid presidential bowler in history, used it frequently until he built the other White House Bowling Alley.
Yes, another bowling alley: This one is a single lane built in the White House basement under the North Portico, where President Nixon could practice his game without leaving the White House. How good was Nixon? Supposedly, he once bowled back-to-back 300 games and (depending on who you believe) had an average of either 165 or 232. But, like many other things about Nixon, it bears a little fact checking. If you look at the photo to the right, you can clearly see that Nixon has fouled by crossing the line, though I'll bet money that the Secret Service didn't call him on it.
This lane is still there, but reportedly in rather sad shape. No president wants to spend public money on such a self-serving project, though a few years ago, several bowling organizations volunteered to remodel the lane. The picture below is an artist's attempt to show what it could look like.
Actually, there is also a third presidential bowling alley. This is a double set of lanes that President Eisenhower had installed in the Hickory Lodge at Camp David. Supposedly, this is the set of lanes most used by every president since Nixon. When Premier Khrushchev came to America in 1959, he asked to see the lanes and seemed fascinated to see the automatic pin setting machines. Evidently, he was expecting serfs.
This is where President Clinton taught Secretary of State Madelaine Albright how to bowl, where Chelsea Clinton had her Sweet Sixteen birthday party, and where President Obama celebrated his 48th birthday. According to the White House press release, he scored a 144. If true, he had obviously been practicing, since he was observed in April, 2008, bowling a game in Pennsylvania while campaigning for reelection: That day, he had bowled a 37.
Perhaps this is why he once promised, that if reelected, he would rip out the Presidential bowling alley and replace it with a full-sized indoor basketball court. So far, this is just another unfulfilled campaign promise. In politics, as in bowling, split happens.