Stress Relief: Exercise and Relaxation at the White House
by Geri Zabela Eddins
Although the well-known proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is often touted to justify a guilty pleasure, the Pulitzer-prize winning historian and presidential scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin insists that the capacity to relax is one of ten essential qualities that distinguish our country’s most effective presidents. To ensure our nation’s chief executives get all the rest, relaxation, and exercise they need, the White House provides an impressive range of onsite recreational facilities that foster not only high-energy sporting activities, but also quiet evenings with family and friends.
• Sports Facilities Provide Exercise and Therapy
• Basketball, Mr. President?
• For Kids Only
• When the Weather Outside is Frightful . . .
• Read and See More
• Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
• Reference Sources
Sports Facilities Provide Exercise and Therapy
In the midst of the Great Depression school children across the nation were so inspired by Franklin Roosevelt that they collected millions of dimes to help fund the construction of a heated indoor swimming pool that the new president could use to ease the polio that crippled his legs. The pool provided necessary therapy and respite for Roosevelt, but the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy families also enjoyed it for their own personal exercise and family recreation. Richard Nixon, however, was no swimmer; he preferred bowling. So, upon entering the White House, Nixon demanded that the pool be removed to make additional room for the press. Nixon then had a bowling alley installed in an underground area below the driveway that leads to the North Portico. When Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford unexpectedly rose to the presidency, Ford regretted the loss of the pool. Happily, private donors funded the construction of a new pool—but the new pool was built outside near the Oval Office.
Because the athletic pursuits of our presidents have varied as greatly as their economic policies, the White House has been improved with more facilities beyond the swimming pool and bowling alley. When golfer Dwight Eisenhower entered the White House, a putting green was added to the lawn outside the Oval Office, complete with its own sand trap. George H. W. Bush required nothing new to be built—he enjoyed playing tennis on the existing tennis courts. But two additions were made during Bill Clinton’s administration: a new practice green and a jogging track were installed on the south lawn. Much to the dismay of the Secret Service, Clinton preferred jogging around the streets of D.C.—often disrupting traffic—rather than running the secure White House path.
Basketball, Mr. President?
Presidential candidates suffer all types of indignities along the campaign trail—from screaming hecklers to being asked to play an unfamiliar sport as if they were show dogs. During the 2008 campaign President Obama amused many at a stop in Pennsylvania where he aptly demonstrated that his athletic abilities do not include bowling. He did prove himself to be a good sport, however, as he grinned through his endless series of gutter balls! It is now a matter of public record that President Obama is no bowler, but an avid basketball player. During his teenage years Obama embraced basketball with a furious passion and played on his high school team for three seasons. His prowess on the court—particularly his finesse at making jump shorts—in fact earned him the nickname “Barry O’Bomber.” Regarding his years playing high school basketball, Obama noted to a Sports Illustrated journalist that he learned about “being part of something and finishing it up. And I learned a lot about discipline, about handling disappointments, about being more team-oriented and realizing that not everything is about you.” Obama has continued to indulge his passion for basketball in the years following high school, even shooting hoops with American troops in Kuwait and playing with his campaign aides on Election Day.
A small basketball court had been installed on the White House grounds by George H. W. Bush, but Obama desired a full-sized court. Although he had quipped to comedian Jimmy Kimmel during the campaign that “we’re getting rid of the bowling alley and replacing it with a basketball court,” the president instead opted to have the existing tennis court adapted for use as both a tennis court and a full-sized basketball court. He enjoys pickup games there, recruiting senior staff, members of Congress, and sometimes Cabinet members. In fact, Obama has proudly proclaimed that members of his cabinet make up “the best basketball-playing cabinet in American history.”
For Kids Only
Living in the public eye can be terribly stressful for a child, and presidential parents often go to great lengths to make their children as comfortable as possible. Jacqueline Kennedy had a trampoline built into the ground so that Caroline and John Jr. were not visible to pedestrians as they bounced into the air. Jimmy Carter designed a tree house for daughter Amy, and the Obamas installed a wooden swing set complete with tree house, tire swing, and climbing wall on the south lawn of the White House when they first moved in.
When the Weather Outside is Frightful . . .
Indoor recreation is not limited to the bowling alley. Presidential families can play pool and ping-pong in the game room located on the third floor of the White House. In fact, billiards has served as standard White House recreation since the early nineteenth century when John Quincy Adams installed the first pool table. Adams initially billed the government for the $61 it cost for the table, cues, and billiard balls, but the public was outraged that he sought tax dollars for such a personal purchase. Adams eventually caved to the public dissent and reimbursed the government.
In 1942 during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration a family theater was constructed on the ground floor of the East Wing, complete with forty upholstered seats for larger gatherings. Over the years presidents have had the pleasure of choosing any movie of their choice to watch whenever they desired—even pre-released blockbusters. Bill Clinton has remarked about the theater, “The best perk out in the White House is not Air Force One or Camp David or anything else. It’s the wonderful movie theater I get here, because people send me these movies all the time.” Though George W. Bush enjoyed watching films such as Hotel Rwanda and Austin Powers, he and other presidents put the theater to a more practical purpose—practicing their delivery of the State of the Union address.
Read and See More
- Read a list of facts and trivia regarding sports and recreation at the White House at: WhiteHouseHistory.org/sports-recreation.
- See a picture of Amy Carter playing in her White House tree house here.
- See the Obama’s swing set here.
- See photographs of presidents and their families enjoying the White House theater over the years here.
Discussion Questions for Young People at Home and in the Classroom
- If you were president, would you be content with the existing facilities? Or would you like to add something new? What would you choose to add?
- Private donors often pick up the tab for renovations to the White House. Do you think tax dollars should be used to construct new facilities desired by a new president? Why or why not?
- President Obama manages to find time to play both basketball and golf. Although Obama sometimes shoots hoops solo, he also enjoys pickup games with friends, family, and colleagues. How would you react if the president invited you to play a game with him? Would you do your best and try to win? Why or why not?
West, J.B. Upstairs at the White House: My Life With the First Ladies. New York:
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1973.
“The Audacity of Hoops: How basketball helped shape Obama.” 9 February 2009.
“Barack Obama picks ‘best cabinet basketball team in history.’” 13 February 2009.
“The Basketball Court.” 27 April 2016.
“The best perk in the White House.” 9 February 2009.
“Obama’s swing set: Surprise, girls!” 14 March 2009.
“The Presidential Pickup Game.” Wall Street Journal. 29 January 2009.
“Sports and Recreation Facts and Trivia.” 29 January 2009.
“Understanding Obama Through Basketball.” The New Yorker. 27 April 2016.
“The White House Museum: Family Theatre.” 29 January 2009.
“White House Letter; Even Bush, No Movie Buff, Enjoys Getting Big Picture.” The New York TImes. 9 February 2009.
©2016 Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance