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Presidential politics, presidential 'yachts'

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The relationship between presidents — and would-be presidents — and those creations that are pointed at one end and mostly square at the other has long represented a mixed bag.

Perhaps something was lost when President Jimmy Carter sold the yacht Sequoia in 1977. The 104-foot Trumpy had served as both the official presidential yacht and the de facto one since President Hoover. Carter sold it to eliminate signs of an “imperial presidency,” according to reports. Interpret that as you may.

Since that time, probably the best example of a commander in chief who really knew how to use one of those pointy things to relax, unwind and recharge his batteries was President George H.W. Bush, an avid angler and dyed-in-the-wool high-performance boater. Last I knew, the former president still owned a 38-foot Fountain powered by triple 300-hp Mercury Verados capable of blowing your hat off and then some with its 75-mph top end. Good for him. Who doesn’t like a little wind in their hair?

At the other end of the spectrum is onetime presidential hopeful Gary Hart, the former senator who dropped out of the race for the highest office in the land in 1987 after the Donna Rice/Monkey Business “business” surfaced, including the infamous photo of Ms. Rice sitting on Hart’s lap, dockside. Talk about running aground.

Today we live in an even more hypersensitive, image-conscious world. Over the Fourth of July holiday, for instance, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was photographed sitting behind his wife on a PWC on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. Both were wearing life jackets. They looked fit, relaxed, happy and, to my eye, all-American.

But a columnist for The Wall Street Journal viewed the AP photo from a different lens. “The jet-ski photo was a little like the kid who celebrates the Fourth of July by lighting and dropping a cherry bomb at his own feet,” wrote Daniel Henninger.

A better photo, he suggests, was the one from the same period that showed Romney sitting at a lake beach in a folding chair with his wife, his grown children and grandkids. That image, the writer argues, “put the candidate perfectly in sync with middle-class anxiety. … This is a photo of an American at rest with his family. It is the man Mr. Romney no doubt wants the country to vote for. The guy in the jet-ski photo is the man they don’t want to vote for — not amid the current anxiety.”


Henninger also worried that the media would immediately liken the images of Romney on the PWC with those taken of former presidential hopeful John Kerry on a sailboard off Nantucket in 2004.

Remember, President George W. Bush’s campaign used the footage of Kerry sailing to create an ad suggesting the candidate’s inconsistency or “flip-flopping” on issues. The tag line: “John Kerry. Whichever way the wind blows.”

Kerry, as you may recall, found himself in choppy waters again in 2010 after buying a $7 million New Zealand-built yacht rather than one constructed by a U.S. yard. The frustration should have come as no surprise, given the heavy weather buffeting domestic boatbuilders.

The day after the WSJ column appeared, the newspaper received several letters supporting Romney’s right to have fun on a PWC. A writer from Springfield, Mo., pooh-poohed the notion that the photo showed a wealthy guy out of touch with the middle class.

“Every tobacco-spittin’, gun totin’, Bible thumpin’ redneck from the Ozarks has a jet ski,” the letter writer stated. “A jet ski costs less than a good bass boat. You can rent a jet ski at the local marina for half a day for $100. I wonder what the greens fees are at a typical Washington, D.C., country club.”


There were other photos taken of Romney over the July holiday having a blast on his modest-sized Sea Ray with as many as 10 grandkids, all in life jackets, aboard. Those images had Grow Boating written all over them.

Up to this point, President Obama has wisely, I think, given boats a wide berth. He took a little heat in 2010 when he mentioned boats in a speech on fiscal responsibility delivered in New Hampshire.

“This isn’t how responsible families do their budgets,” Obama said at the time. “When times are tough, you tighten your belts. You don’t go buying a boat when you can barely pay your mortgage. You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college.” There was more, but the boat line is the one that struck a nerve within our industry.

The Milwaukee Journal weighed in on the weighty subject of presidential yachts in an April 21, 1977, editorial titled “Unsinkable Presidential Yacht.” It was written during the Carter administration, when the president was talking about getting rid of Sequoia.

The piece points out that “while presidents keep getting rid of yachts, they somehow continue to go yachting.” Presidents Hoover, Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon deep-sixed their yachts, the editorial reports, and then requisitioned others from the Navy to ply the Potomac on hot summer evenings.

Eisenhower referred to Truman’s yacht as a “symbol of needless luxury” but then picked up two others from the Navy, according to the editorial, both of which President Kennedy used. Johnson feigned no interest in yachts, but The Milwaukee Journal says he frequently used one of them. And Nixon, the editorial notes, used Sequoia frequently, especially in the period right before he resigned.

“Presidents have always had a yacht available, and that doesn’t strike us as too regal a privilege, if used with restraint,” the editorial writer opined.

You could argue that it’s far cheaper than Air Force One.



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