Skydiving, Wrestling, and Other Things Presidents Have Done for Fun

Skydiving, Wrestling, and Other Things Presidents Have Done for Fun

Though it may sometimes be hard to believe, for various reasons, presidents are only human. They may have a job to do that’s pretty much 24/7, but just like us, they need down time, rest, relaxation, and diversion.

How they meet these needs depends greatly on their personalities, interests, and abilities, of course. Throughout our nation’s history, we’ve had intellectual presidents and athletic ones, fun-loving presidents and cheerless ones. Some live their lives, both official and private, with gusto, while others seem to be sleep-walking through their duties and probably everything else.

But probably every president has had outside interests, amusements — hobbies. To compile a list of 20 presidents with particularly interesting and/or unexpected ways of spending their leisure time, 24/7 Tempo consulted sources including White House History, Britannica, and JSTOR, as well as the websites of numerous presidential libraries.

The hobbies we’ve found range far and wide. Some are purely intellectual — collecting books or stamps, for instance. Others involve vigorous exercise, whether it’s wrestling, swimming, basketball, or horseback riding. In some cases, future presidents engaged in these pursuits before taking office or after they’d left, but in many cases being in the White House didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the things they liked to do.

You may be surprised to learn that George Washington loved to dance, and that Andrew Johnson, who’d worked as a tailor before entering politics, enjoyed sewing, and made his own suits — even after he’d been elected president. You may find it easy to believe that the controversial Andrew Jackson loved fighting duels, and actually killed a rival in one of them. But did you know that John Quincy Adams went skinny-dipping almost every morning, that Lyndon Johnson was a prankster who liked to scare guests at his ranch by driving his car into the river (not telling them that it was an amphibious vehicle), or that Jimmy Carter made wine? Read on for more on 20 of our former chief executives and their hobbies. (Can you solve these real ‘Jeopardy’ clues about U.S. presidents?)

Here is a list of things presidents have done for fun:

George Washington

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
  • Years in office: 1789-1797
  • Hobbies: Dancing, mule breeding

The father of our country was apparently light on his feet, having been described by contemporaries as a very good dancer. He himself once described the pursuit as “so agreeable and innocent an amusement.” When he retired from the presidency, he became a gentleman farmer, with a particular interest in mules, which were rare in America at the time. King Charles III of Spain gifted Washington with a Zamorano-Leonés donkey, which Washington then bred with suitable mares throughout the young United States, resulting is a healthy population of mules — animals he believed would revolutionize agricultural labor.

Thomas Jefferson

Source: National Archives / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1801-1809
  • Hobbies: Almost everything

Jefferson was a skilled architect, though self-educated in the subject (see Monticello, the Virginia State Capitol, Poplar Forest, etc.); a book collector (among other things assembling one of the nation’s largest libraries of architectural tomes); an amateur archeologist; an ornithologist; a garden designer; a naturalist with an interest in geology; a farmer and student of agricultural science; a noted gourmet credited with helping to popularize macaroni and cheese, ice cream, and French fries in America; a would-be winemaker, anticipating the modern Virginia wine scene; an inventor (his creations included a new kind of plow and the swivel chair); a linguist who spoke or read at least five languages…. It’s easy to believe that there was nothing he wasn’t interested in.

John Quincy Adams

Source: National Archives / Newsmakers / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1825-1829
  • Hobbies: Skinny-dipping

Adams himself recorded in his diary that he usually rose between four and five a.m. each day, walked two miles, and bathed in the “Potowmack river” (actually a tributary called Tiber Creek). He didn’t bother with a swimsuit, but stripped down and left his clothes on the banks. According to a probably apocryphal story, a female reporter who had been rebuffed in her attempts to interview him arrived one morning as he swam and sat on his clothes until he answered her questions.

Andrew Jackson

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1829-1837
  • Hobbies: Dueling, horse breeding, staging cockfights (maybe)

Jackson was obviously a combative sort, as he is said to have participated in more than a hundred duels in his life — in one instance killing his opponent, a rival horse breeder named Charles Dickinson. Speaking of which, when he was a young attorney, long before becoming president, Jackson was leading breeder and owner of thoroughbred race horses in his native Tennessee. He was also an inveterate gambler, betting on horse races, cards, dice, and even cockfights — which rumor has it he staged in the White House.

Abraham Lincoln

Source: Alexander Gardner/Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1861-1865
  • Hobbies: Wrestling

The future 16th president of the United States, known for his physical stature (he was 6’4″), was a serious wrestler, said to have engaged in as many as 300 matches, and becoming a county wrestling champion at the age of 21. Some historians speculate that his reputation as a grappler may have helped him win the presidency. In 1992, Lincoln was inducted posthumously into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as an “Outstanding American” in the ring.

Andrew Johnson

Source: National Archives / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1865-1869
  • Hobbies: Sewing

When he was a young man, Johnson was taken on as an apprentice by a tailor in Raleigh, NC. After he left the place, he took other tailoring jobs around the South before settling in Greeneville, TN, where he opened his own shop. The shop became a local meeting place, where citizens debated the issues of the time. Johnson proved himself to be an able debater, and his reputation helped launch his political career. He never gave up sewing, making his own suits his whole life, even while in the White House.

Chester A. Arthur

Source: National Archives / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1881-1885
  • Hobbies: Bass fishing

Arthur had what has been called “a near obsession” with angling, practicing the sport all over the country, from the Potomac River to the Thousand Islands on the U.S.-Canada border and from Lake Tohopekaliga and the Kissimmee River in Florida to the Green River in what was then the Wyoming Territory. This last expedition inspired him to help save Yellowstone Park, which was threatened by developers in 1883.

Theodore Roosevelt

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1901-1909
  • Hobbies: Hunting, boxing, tennis, rowing, hiking, polo, horseback riding, jujitsu, walking on stilts, reading

Roosevelt was a conservationist and naturalist as well as a soldier, a police commissioner, and of course the country’s 26th president — but he also loved sports and physical activity of many kinds. He believed in leading what he called “the strenuous life” — which translated to individual sports of many kinds. He studied jujitsu with the celebrated Japanese judo expert Yamashita Yoshitsugu, and believed that American soldiers should be taught the martial art. He was also an enthusiastic hunter — and loved walking on stilts, a pastime apparently shared by every member of his family. And when he wasn’t physically exerting himself, Roosevelt loved to curl up with a good book, or several. He is said to have read tens of thousands of books over the course of his lifetime, sometimes several in one day, and is considered to be one of the most well-read of presidents, along with Thomas Jefferson.

Calvin Coolidge

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1923-1929
  • Hobbies: Riding an electric horse

Cleveland loved to ride (live horses), but either because his duties as president didn’t give him time to pursue that pastime or because the Secret Service forbade him to ride out of concern for his safety, he acquired an electric horse, which had two gaits — trot and gallop — and was known to ride it daily instead.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Source: Keystone Features / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1933-1945
  • Hobbies: Book collecting, stamp collection, swimming

FDR was another president who loved to read, and to collect books. He amassed more than 32,000 throughout his life, and they now take up an entire wing of the FDR Presidential Library & Museum in Hyde Park, NY. He also loved stamps from around the world, and the way they reflected different cultures, and promoted the hobby. He is credited with helping to popularize it among the general populace. In 1921, 12 years before he became president, Roosevelt was stricken with polio. According to the FDR Library & Museum website, he “began routinely swimming three times a week…. He had realized that his legs could support the weight of his body in water with ease and used swimming as his main exercise,” and swimming help with his rehab.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Source: Bert Hardy / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1953-1961
  • Hobbies: Painting

After the Welsh-born portrait artist Thomas Stephens painted a portrait of Ike’s wife, Mamie, the president tried to reproduce a copy of it, the quality of which provoked some merriment from the artist. As a joke, Stephens sent Ike a painting kit the next day. The president thought it was a “sheer waste of money,” but he tried it out and started painting regularly. He is said to have remarked that he could become a good painter, except that he lacked one quality: ability. There are now 30 of his paintings in the Eisenhower Presidential Library collection.

Lyndon Johnson

Source: Central Press / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1963-1969
  • Hobbies: Driving an Amphicar

Johnson acquired an Amphicar, a German-made amphibious automobile that first appeared in America in 1961. He loved to drive it around his sprawling ranch in the Texas Hill Country — often drunk, according to some sources — and delighted in discomfiting visitors who didn’t realize what kind of car it was by driving it straight into the Pedernales River at full speed.

Richard Nixon

Source: Hulton Archive / Archive Photos via Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1969-1974
  • Hobbies: Poker, bowling

Nixon mastered the game of poker while serving in the U.S. Navy during WWII, and apparently regularly won  money from his fellow sailors. He later became a competitive player, specializing in five-card stud, and is said to have used his poker winnings to help launch his political career. (Harry Truman was another famous poker-playing president.) After Nixon was elected president, he stopped playing poker publicly, but is said to have arranged games quietly with members of Congress. He was also an avid bowler, and had a one-lane alley installed in the White House in 1973.

Gerald Ford

Source: National Archives / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1974-1977
  • Hobbies: Swimming, tennis, stamp collecting

Though he later acquired a reputation for clumsiness, Ford was athletic. He’d played football for the University of Michigan in the early 1930’s, and remained active all his life. He loved swimming, and had an outdoor pool built on the White House grounds in 1975. He was  a skier and golfer, as well as what his chief of staff, Donald Rumsfeld, called an “aggressive” tennis player, who at least once hit a ball into the back of his doubles partner’s head. (He also beaned several spectators while golfing over the years.) Indoors, Ford collected stamps, a pursuit he’d started at the age of 12. The Gerald R, Ford Presidential Museum lists philately as his principal hobby.

Jimmy Carter

Source: MPI / Archive Photos via Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1977-1981
  • Hobbies: Furniture making, winemaking

He may be remembered, in his post-presidential years, mostly for his human rights activities and hands-on work with Habitat for Humanity, but Carter was a skilled furniture maker, who fashioned more than 150 pieces over the decades. Perhaps more surprising, he also made wine, using native Muscadine and Scuppernong grapes, according to a recipe handed down from his grandfather. His production at its height was little more than 100 bottles a year, which went to family and friends. He had a 250-year-old wine press, but, he once told Wine Spectator, “I’ve made the rest of my equipment myself.”

Ronald Reagan

Source: Keystone / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1981-1989
  • Hobbies: Horseback riding

A member of Reagan’s Presidential Protective Detail once said he “did the most dangerous thing you can do. He rode horses.” He’d developed an affection for riding when he was an actor, starring in now-forgotten Westerns like ‘Santa Fe Trail” and “Cattle Queen of Montana.” Whenever he had a chance to mount up while he was in office, whether at Camp David in Maryland or at his “Western White House,” Rancho del Cielo near Santa Barbara, CA, he took it, and after he returned to private life, he rode even more. His favorite horse was a white thoroughbred Arabian stallion named El Alamein, given to him by President José López Portillo of Mexico.

George H.W. Bush

Source: John Moore / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1989-1993
  • Hobbies: Skydiving, horseshoes

During WWII, Bush bailed out of a Navy bomber that was going down. It was a harrowing experience, but he vowed that one day he would strap on a parachute again. The didn’t happen until 1997, when he told a group of skydivers in the United States Parachute Association about his wartime experience and his vow. They quickly arranged for the 72-year-old ex-chief executive to dive from a plane over Arizona — after hours of training. He enjoyed the experience so much that he repeated it on his 80th, 85th, and 90th birthdays, though by the last of these he was confined to a wheelchair. He is the only president who has ever skydived. Bush had a more terrestrial passion, too — horseshoes. He had a horseshoe pit built on the South Lawn at the White House, and appointed a staffer as Horseshoe Commissioner. He held two annual horseshoe tournaments while he was in office.

Bill Clinton

Source: Pool / JE / Getty Images
  • Years in office: 1993-2001
  • Hobbies: Crossword puzzles, tenor saxophone

Clinton began working crosswords, he said in a documentary called “Wordplay,” at “some point” in his life, adding that “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.” It is said that when he works a puzzle, he begins at the upper left corner and fills out everything continuously from there, not skipping around like most solvers do. Clinton played the tenor sax in high school, and confessed that at one point, he considered pursuing a career in music, “but I knew I would never be John Coltrane or Stan Getz.” He did perform in public on occasion, though, playing on “The Arsenio Hall Show” when he was running for president and, as president, playing a horn given to him by Russian president Boris Yeltsin at a private dinner in Moscow.

George W. Bush

Source: Pool / Getty Images News via Getty Images
  • Years in office: 2001-2009
  • Hobbies: Running

The younger Bush enjoyed running — and not just for office. In 1993, he finished the Houston Marathon with a respectable time of 3:44:52, and when he was in the White House, he often started his day with a three-mile run,  supposedly at a speed of six minutes per mile. Runner’s World thought seven-plus minutes was more likely, though even that “feels a little on the fish-story side.” When he was in Houston, Bush reportedly started “the 100 Degree Club” — meaning that he would run until the temperature reached that number. He may have enjoyed the exercise, but the same can probably not be said for the Secret Service agents who accompanied him, as they had to wear long shirts to cover their firearms and radio.

Barack Obama

Source: Alex Wong / Getty Images News via Getty Images
  • Years in office: 2009-2017
  • Hobbies: Collecting comic books, basketball

Obama has said that he grew up loving comics, buying them as a child from a blind man who ran a local newsstand. He has also appeared as a character in countless comic books, beginning in 2007, when he was a senator. In 2009, after he had revealed in an interview that his favorite comic book characters were Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian, Marvel Comics put him on the cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #583, for a story called “Spidey Meets the President.” The 44th president is also a big basketball fan, and by all reports a pretty good player. Sports Illustrated noted that the game was a “touchstone” for Obama as president, and that he used his skills on the court effectively as a campaign tool. When he first got to the White House, he converted the tennis court to a basketball court, and played frequent pickup games with members of his administration.

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