The Presidents, Swimsuit Edition: Trunks to Tees to Plain Naked

When George Washington took to the water he wore nothing at all.

When George Washington took to the water he wore nothing at all.

Roosevelt wore one with a tanktop. Kennedy, Reagan, LBJ, Nixon and Obama sported the more familiar trunk suits. Truman slipped into what almost looks like a 1940s Speedo. John Quincy Adams, among others, wore nothing at all.

In most parts of the country, it may still bit chilly to get into the water, but the onset of summer means it won’t be too long before there’s swimming in the river, bathing in the ocean, and diving in the pool. It’s such familiarly refreshing activity than many a President of the United States has looked forward to as enthusiastically as anyone else, perhaps more so. After all, a President can’t hold a conference, take a call, sign a bill or negotiate down his opposition while wet.

It isn’t until the early part of the 20th century that one consistently finds Presidents out in public wearing their bathing suits. Oddly, there were more eyebrows raised when President Obama allowed himself to be photographed wearing his bathing suit during 2008 and 2009 vacations in the legendary blue waters of his native state of Hawaii than there were in reaction to the many similar images of F.D.R. seventy-five years ago, or JFK fifty years ago.

Swimming Presidents, however, go back to the very first. Among the four of the first five Presidents known as the “Virginia Dynasty” (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe) one finds they often made visits to the numerous hot, mineral springs throughout their native state where bathing pools were segregated by gender and men wore nothing at all. George Washington was a standout swimmer among them, favoring creeks and rivers and apparently without much consideration of the effect on citizens who happened upon the Father of His Country happy, naked and in the water.

Despite its reputation as an uptight era, by the Victorian Age, one finds references to the likes of Pierce, Grant and Benjamin Harrison openly out enjoying the ocean – exposing only their arms and shoulders in woolen suits.

For their wives, like all other American women, it was a different story. That’s one to be told and illustrated in the forthcoming article, First Ladies, Swimsuit Edition. And for a peek at where both Presidents and First Ladies went swimming close to home, will be the third in this series, the forthcoming Pools of the Presidents.

Here in this article, however, is a peek at what those momental men looked like when wet.

The bathing place of George Washington in Berkeley Springs, Virginia.

The bathing place of George Washington in Berkeley Springs, Virginia.

Before slipping into his bathing pool, George Washington would have slipped off a banyan robe. A modest man he would certainly have had his back to any onlookers.

Before slipping into his bathing pool, George Washington would have slipped off a banyan robe. A modest man he would certainly have had his back to any onlookers.

John Quincy Adams liked to skinnydip in the Tiber Creek which once stood to the south of the White House.

President John Quincy Adams liked to skinny-dip in the Tiber Creek which once stood to the south of the White House. (WHHA)

An Internet drawing depicts President John Quincy Adams in the buff, as he would have appeared when reporter Anne Royall sat on his clothes until he agreed to grant her an interview.

An Internet drawing depicts President John Quincy Adams in the buff, as he would have appeared when reporter Anne Royall sat on his clothes until he agreed to grant her an interview.

President Franklin Pierce, who frequented many Virginia hot springs as well as Newport, served at a time when men began bathing near women and thus wearing bathing outfits.

President Franklin Pierce, who frequented many Virginia hot springs as well as Newport, served at a time when men began bathing near women and thus wearing bathing outfits like this one from 1854, during his presidency.

The first newspaper illustration showing a President in his bathing suit, depicting Ulysses Grant as

The first newspaper illustration showing a President in his bathing suit, depicting Ulysses Grant at the beach at Long Branch, New Jersey, his youngest son Jesse on his shoulders.

young Teddy Roosevelt

In cap and trunks a young Theodore Roosevelt was ready for wrestling, if not swimming.

When President Taft went swimming, so the saying went, he took up the ocean.

Others couldn’t go swimming when the overweight William Howard Taft was, so the crack went, because the President was taking up the ocean.

Warren and Florence Harding, and her son Marshall wading in a creek, skirt and trousers uplifted from the water.

Warren and Florence Harding, and her son Marshall wading in a creek, skirt and trousers uplifted from the water.

FDR in Florida with friends.

Franklin D. Roosevelt in Florida with friends, before his presidency.

A gleeful F.D.R. at the Warm Springs, Georgia pool.

A gleeful President Roosevelt at the Warm Springs, Georgia pool.

In his striped swimsuit at the Warm Springs pool in the late 1930s, President Roosevelt's thin legs were a result of muscle atrophy caused by his polio.

In his striped swimsuit at the Warm Springs pool in the late 1930s, President Roosevelt’s thin legs were a result of muscle atrophy caused by his polio.

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Harry Truman was so modest a President that he washed his own socks and underwear in the White House. But he had no trouble sunbathing and spying distant shores whole wearing a relatively immodest bathing suit.

Truman pauses, considering a plunge into the ocean off a ship's side.

Truman pauses, considering a plunge into the ocean off a ship’s side.

President Harry Truman takes a swim in the ocean, off the ship.

President Truman takes the plunge.

Ike and Mamie Eisenhower in their beachwear during a visit to Sea Island.

Ike and Mamie Eisenhower in their beachwear during a visit to Sea Island.

As a freshman U.S. Senator, John F. Kennedy posed in Palm Beach with his friend and colleague George Smathers, the U.S. Senator from Florida

As a freshman U.S. Senator, John F. Kennedy posed in Palm Beach with his friend and colleague George Smathers, the U.S. Senator from Florida.

Jack Kennedy frolics in the sea with Jackie, snapped by Jacques Lowe.

Jack Kennedy frolics in the sea with Jackie, snapped by Jacques Lowe.

Jack Kennedy in his family's Palm Beach swimming pool, 1940s.

Jack Kennedy in his family’s Palm Beach swimming pool, 1940s.

Jack Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign, taking a dip at Hyannis Port.

Jack Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign, taking a dip at Hyannis Port.

Another photograph of JFK in the sea.

Another photograph of JFK in the sea.

When John F. Kennedy emerged from the ocean at Santa Monica after a brief swim, he was swamped by excited beachgoers.

When John F. Kennedy emerged from the ocean at Santa Monica after a brief swim, he was swamped by excited beachgoers.

President Kennedy with his nephew Christopher Lawford, poolside at the Santa Monica, California home of his sister and brother-in-law.

President Kennedy with his nephew Christopher Lawford, poolside at the Santa Monica, California home of his sister and brother-in-law.

President Kennedy at center, his brothers Robert at right and Teddy at left, emerging from the Cape Cod ocean.

President Kennedy at center, his brothers Robert at right and Teddy at left, emerging from the Cape Cod ocean.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson in his red pool robe.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson in his red pool robe.

LBJ after a swim with his dog Yuki and his grandson Lyn on his shoulders, June 1, 1968.

LBJ after a swim with his dog Yuki and his grandson Lyn on his shoulders, June 1, 1968.

LBJ dives off the board at the old Camp David pool.

LBJ dives off the board at the old Camp David pool.

In a home movie screen shot, LBJ dives into the old pool at Camp David.

In a home movie screen shot, LBJ dives into the old pool at Camp David.

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Concerned more with the perception of modesty as President, Richard Nixon famously took walks along the Pacific Ocean shore below his San Clemente, California estate in business shoes and a blazer, seen here as his Yorkshire Terrier frolics alongside.

When he got into the ocean or a pool, of course, Richard Nixon donned his swimming trunks.

When he got into the ocean or a pool, of course, Richard Nixon donned his swimming trunks.

With his wife and two young daughters in the early 1950s, Vice President Nixon enjoys a day at the beach.

With his wife and two young daughters in the early 1950s, Vice President Nixon enjoys a day at the beach.

Nixon happily complied with a young boy's request for a photo with him on a Florida beach.

Nixon happily complied with a young boy’s request for a photo with him on a Florida beach.

Gerald Ford with two golden retrievers, one of whom was his dog Liberty, on the deck alongside his new outdoor White House pool.

Gerald Ford with two golden retrievers, one of whom was his dog Liberty, on the deck alongside his new outdoor White House pool.

President Ford disrobes, ready for a swim.

President Ford disrobes, ready for a swim.

Jimmy Carter wades into the Atlantic with daughter Amy at Sea Island, Georgia, Memorial Day weekend 1977.

Jimmy Carter wades into the Atlantic with daughter Amy at Sea Island, Georgia, Memorial Day weekend 1977.

When Jimmy Carter got wet in the water, it was mostly for fishing.

Ronald Reagan, swimming in Hawaii.

Ronald Reagan, swimming in Hawaii.

After a swim in Hawaii, Reagan smiles for a gaggle of nearby press photographers.

After a swim in Hawaii, Reagan smiles for a gaggle of nearby press photographers.

Reagan tosses a football on the beach.

Reagan tosses a football on the beach.

The Reagans after a dip in Hawaii.

The Reagans after a dip in Hawaii.

Ronald Reagan during his early career as a successful lifeguard, 1927.

Ronald Reagan during his early career as a successful lifeguard, 1927.

A young Ronald Reagan about to take a dive

A young Ronald Reagan about to take a dive.

Reagan demonstrating a swim stroke in Hollywood.

Reagan demonstrating a swim stroke in Hollywood.

After moving to California, Reagan rarely went long without a swim.

After moving to California, Reagan rarely went long without a swim.

Actor Reagan in a publicity still with his first wife, fellow actor Jane Wyman.

Actor Reagan in a publicity still with his first wife, fellow actor Jane Wyman.

Actor Ronald Reagan, in another publicity photo with an actress.

Actor Ronald Reagan, in another publicity photo with an actress.

Reagan on the studio, but off the beach.

Reagan on the studio, but off the beach.

George H. Bush kept himself submerged in the water.

george h bush bathng suit

However modest he was about being snapped in his suit, President George H. Bush was a good enough swimmer to sustain a long floating session.

george h bush fishing palm beach 1988 ocean water

Swimming or fishing, as he is seen doing here in 1988 near Palm Beach, Florida, President Bush, like Carter before him, kept on a tee-shirt.

bush bathing suit

As a former President, Bush refrained from jumping in the pool, but didn’t mind others who had.

Bill Clinton in his swimming trunks before a dip in the Atlantic Ocean at Martha's Vineyard.

Clinton in his swimming trunks before a dip in the Atlantic Ocean at Martha’s Vineyard.

bill hillary clinton bathing suits

The Clintons in their beachware on Martha’s Vineyard.

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President Clinton after a dive into the ocean, assumedly wearing a waterproof watch.

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The President in a game of oceanic frisbee.

bush shows off speedo given him by auburn women's swim team 2006

President George W. Bush shows off his speedo bathing suit, given him at the White House by the Auburn College women’s swim team in 2006.

obama bathing suit 1

As a U.S. Senator, and sporting a bit of a chin beard, enjoying Hawaii with his daughters.

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The famous picture of Barack Obama emerging from the ocean as confidently as Neptune.

Barack Obama

Obama’s choice of shorts were far more modest than Truman’s had been more than a half-century earlier.

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Frolicking with kids and a wakeboard, Obama grew up enjoying the Hawaiian ocean he would get into only on vacation as President.

Seeming to suddenly realize he was being photographed while swimming, presidential candidate Obama gives a dubious glance backwards.

As President, Barack Obama played in the waters off the Gulf Coast, in Panama City, Florida during a summer 2010 vacation there, as a way of proving that the waters there were safe for swimming following the famous oil spill which had taken place there shortly before.

As President, Barack Obama played in the waters off the Gulf Coast, in Panama City, Florida during a summer 2010 vacation there, as a way of proving that the waters there were safe for swimming following the famous oil spill which had taken place there shortly before.


Categories: Presidents, The Adamses, The Bushes, The Kennedys, The LBJs, The Nixons, The Reagans, The Roosevelts, The Washingtons

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7 replies »

  1. Truman appears to be wearing the same style of trunks favored by Johnnie Weissmuller(sp?) / Tarzan.

    • Well – you’re right, I never thought of that but sure, the minute you think of those old Tarzan movies, that’s what he was wearing. Good call – and as always, appreciate you making the effort to leave a comment.

      • Times change. Tarzan, in those swim trunks, was a hot dude. Anyway, your posts are always interesting. You do a great job and bring unique perspective. I feel privileged to comment when I can add something that other readers might enjoy.

  2. Carl, this one will be hard to beat. LBJ in that red robe takes the cake!

  3. The Kennedy Bros. on the beach , left to right , RFK , JFK , & Teddy . I was confused at the caption . ps I have a pic from 65′ of Ted coming out of the water at Craigville Beach , Hyannis , and I would recognize his heavy calves anywhere . Jack and Bobby were thinner , I think Ted and Brother Joe , KIA in 1944 , were built alike . Thank you Mr. Anthony

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