Politicians tend to be both famous and infamous – before, during and after their administration. Seen as larger-than-life figures who shape policy and build and destroy nations, it can be easy to forget that they are human. These politicians had families, pastimes, and, like most people, sought the company of others.
Tales abound of the parties and social gatherings of ancient, medieval nobles and leaders. As media access expands, it is much easier to record and retain information. As a result, we know more about our leaders from the last few centuries than those of the past. This is true of British monarchs, tyrannical despots, and the presidents of the United States. Not only do we have detailed records of their policy efforts and accomplishments, but we also know a great deal about who they were before, during, and after their time in the White House.
It can be hard to separate the president from the person when they are in office, but, just like leaders of old, these people have had their own lives to live. However, how they spend their time has varied across generations. Just like in any other country or at any other time, the commander-in-chief has hobbies and pastimes they partake in, both on and off duty, in order to ensure better policy and connection with constituents. At the end of the day, though, presidents are still people, and people tend to enjoy each other’s company. The way they engage in that company has changed over the decades, but some common threads do exist.
9 Ways of Socializing
James Madison had a Ball
The Presidential Inaugural Ball is a tradition that reminds people just how old-fashioned American politics can be. A formal event with fancy dresses and difficult dances, these gatherings are reminiscent of the stuffy collars and waistcoats of the nineteenth century. These balls were not always a tradition, however, though they did start early in the young republic’s history.
Technically, George Washington’s first inaugural ball was held when he became the first president in 1789. This ball was more a commemoration than a formalized tradition, and the next such ball would not take place until 1809. James Madison, perhaps best known for the War of 1812, would receive the honor of hosting the first official inaugural ball. Madison was rather shy, so such a fancy, formal social event might come across as an unusual way to socialize with constituents and the high society of Washington, D.C. So why did he host the event? It was his wife’s idea.
Unlike her reserved husband, Dolley Madison was socially active. A widow and Quaker by birth, she quickly turned the White House into a social hub, and her elegance, tact, and political acumen served President Madison well. Thus, the shy little Madison found himself part of one of the biggest social circles in D.C history. Tickets for the first inaugural ball were four dollars each – this was back when a five-hour carriage ride cost a dollar – and there were a hundred guests in attendance. Today a committee handles the ball.
Woodrow Wilson’s Many Swings
Traditionally a sport for rich white men trying to get away from their wives for a day, plenty of American presidents have enjoyed golfing. Golf is also a way to get business done without having to sit around a stuffy office – or an excuse for players to practice their swings on the company dime. Several presidents have spent a lot of time on the course: Trump and George W. Bush are the most notable in recent history, but Woodrow Wilson deserves special attention as that was how he met his wife.
Wilson played over 1,000 rounds of golf during his two terms in office. He didn’t just play alone, though. Wilson would often work through policy while golfing. While this was common practice, Wilson’s love for the game meant he spent a fair few rounds on the course while planning the legislation that led America into the Roaring ’20s. He didn’t just discuss policy, however. Apparently, he had no problem socializing and courting during or after a few rounds: he met his second wife, Edith, after a game of golf.
To truly appreciate Wilson’s love of the game, it must be noted that he had the Secret Service paint his golf balls black so he could golf in the snow. That’s right, Wilson was a year-round golfer. Just like the Post Office, neither rain nor snow would keep this Virginian from his appointed rounds. Whether he was planning legislation, discussing policy, or courting future wives, Wilson accomplished a lot between swings.
Hayes Rolled Some Eggs
For children the country over, egg hunts are a chance for free candy. Of course, there is always a fierce struggle between the strong and the weak, as the children attempt to obtain the most candy possible. Egg rolling is another tradition, and it is one that has been carried over to the White House. However, that wasn’t always the case. The first Easter Egg Roll to take place was under President Rutherford B. Hayes’s administration in 1878. As a controversial president with an extremely narrow electoral victory, and still trying to clean up the messes of the Civil War, an opportunity to watch some kids play with eggs must have been a welcome distraction.
Grover Cleveland started allowing indoor egg rolls in 1885 when children entering the White House asked him if they could have one. Who could say no to a bunch of kids dressed up in their Sunday best? Though it might not have been the most involved social interaction, the opportunity to observe the kids and speak with their parents would have been an enjoyable diversion during the holiday.
Kennedy Dined Like a Kennedy
John F. Kennedy seems to get away with a lot because of his short administration, but one can’t deny that he had the Kennedy style down pat. A textbook politician, Kennedy was also an ardent fan of music and the high life his legacy enabled him to enjoy. White House dinners were glamorous, music-infused events with celebrities and famous individuals from across the country. Kennedy’s wife seemed to shine bright at these gatherings, using her fancy clothes and good looks to draw attention to herself – and, by extension, to the president.
The Kennedys weren’t the only presidential couple to hold dinner parties, of course. Both Eisenhower and Carter were infamous for their boring dinners that reminded many of a visit with their grandparents or that old aunt who never drinks. The Kennedys, however, embodied the glamour and socialization of a hopping dinner party scene, even when politics got in the way.
Gerald Ford Loved Football
American football and baseball are perhaps two of the most American sports around, so it’s no surprise that plenty of presidents have enjoyed both. Harry S. Truman holds the record for attending the most college football games, and Gerald Ford was such a talented football player at the University of Michigan that he had a shot at playing professionally. Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were also avid college football fans. Reagan played the sport during his time off and in some of his acting roles.
Few sports personify the American spirit like American football and baseball, so it’s no surprise that presidents have enjoyed participating in them and have used that chance to connect with their fellow Americans.
Sports have long been a way for people to come together. From the first Greek Olympics to modern sports bars, families, friends and communities enjoy watching and even participating in sports to better connect with each other. Presidents naturally tend to enjoy such chances to build bridges and forge communities with their fellow Americans, both to understand their constituents better and to look good for the press.
Theodore Roosevelt deserves special recognition, as not only did he believe in the social and physical benefits of sports, he also legalized the forward pass in football. Thanks to him, American sports could flourish and grow into the spectacles they are today. Those sports might have their issues, but thanks to Roosevelt, we can still enjoy them.
Buchanan and Jackson Loved to Drink
James Buchanan had a rough administration with the ramping up of hostilities leading up to the Civil War. Perhaps that was why he drank so much. The amount and the type of alcohol consumed during the many administrations in American history has varied. Some, like Rutherford B. Hayes – or, more specifically, his wife – were notorious for their sobriety. Others liked to party hard. None, however, drank more than James Buchanan. A journalist at the time griped that “the Madeira and sherry he has consumed would fill more than one cellar and the rye whiskey that he has ‘punished’ would make Jacob Baer’s heart glad… More than one ambitious tyro who sought to follow his… example gathered an early fall.”
Apparently, Buchanan was immune to hangovers. He wasn’t the only president who was a heavy drinker, however. Andrew Jackson’s inaugural celebration was so rowdy it threatened to destroy the White House with Animal House levels of collateral damage and booze. The staff placed buckets of spiked punch just to get the revelers out of the building. Even Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a good drink, though he was a massive wine snob. There’s no doubt he enjoyed discussing the finer points of French wine on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ensuring the Best Seats in the House
People might be surprised, but the infamous assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater overshadows a rather interesting fact. Namely, there is a reserved seating area for presidents at the theater. John Wilkes Booth knew which seating area Lincoln would be in, and ever since, presidents have enjoyed great theater seating.
Referred to as the Presidential Box, the location has shifted slightly over the years as times have changed and the theater has been remodeled. The box seating Lincoln used has been preserved as a museum area, and these days presidents usually sit behind the orchestra. Though attending the theater has been a presidential perk for decades, Lincoln’s visit gets the most attention for obvious reasons.
Roosevelt Went on the Hunt
For many men, heading off into the wilderness lightly loaded and armed in search of meat and pelts is the ultimate bonding experience. Such notions harken back to the earliest frontier days of American and Canadian history. People still hunt for meat and pelts, but not nearly to the extent that they once did. Just as the presidents have enjoyed golf and parties, many have also enjoyed a good hunt.
The ultimate presidential hunter was conservationist Theodore Roosevelt. In his own words, “in hunting, the finding and killing of the game is after all but a part of the whole…the free, self-reliant, adventurous life, with its rugged and stalwart democracy; the wild surroundings, the grand beauty of the scenery, the chance to study the ways and habits of the woodland creatures – all these unite to give to the career of the wilderness hunter its peculiar charm. The chase is among the best of all national pastimes; it cultivates that vigorous manliness for the lack of which in a nation, as in an individual, the possession of no other qualities can possibly atone.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoyed a good bird hunt as well as fishing. He was also an avid golfer and once asked the Secret Service to shoot gophers messing with his greens. Since the Secret Service wasn’t hiring the landscaper from Caddyshack, they never did. Jimmy Carter, a stick-in-the-mud but a good egg, was a surprisingly avid hunter. As he said himself, “I have used weapons since I was big enough to carry one, and now own two handguns, four shotguns and three rifles, two with scopes,” in an op-ed to The New York Times in 2009. Carter continued, “I use them carefully, for hunting game from our family woods and fields, and occasionally for hunting with my family and friends in other places. We cherish the right to own a gun and some of my hunting companions like to collect rare weapons. One of them is a superb craftsman who makes muzzle-loading rifles, one of which I displayed for four years in my private White House office.”
Dubya Loved Baseball
George W. Bush had a couple of hobbies, but none were quite as socially minded as baseball. The American pastime has been adored by fans and politicians alike and is also a part of a presidential tradition. Generally speaking, the president has the honor of throwing the first pitch at the start of the World Series. William Howard Taft started the tradition in 1910, and from then on, it became as much a presidential tradition as the inaugural ball and Easter egg roll.
Though many may not consider watching or participating in a sport as socializing, it is as much a part of any gathering experience as other similar social events. Families crowding around the television, groups of friends on the couch, strangers gathered at a bar, and stadium crowds are all social events. The camaraderie of a sports team is a powerful force as well. The chance for a president to enjoy such socialization demonstrates both their humanity and their status as a leader of the United States.
At the time of writing, there have been forty-four presidents of the United States. Each of them has enjoyed their time in their own ways. Some were introverts, preferring the company of close family and pets. Others rubbed shoulders with everyone and anyone, greeting guests and going to theaters and parties. Whether it be hunting or golfing, presidents have socialized in different ways and for different reasons. Some preferred the simple camaraderie of the experience. Others planned policy and legislation while on the green. Whatever the reason or location, presidents are people, and people are social creatures who enjoy each other’s company, or at least the company of other creatures. Modern presidents may very well start having Zoom calls, just like those made possible through VideoSocialize, which provides Zoom mixer meetings on varoius topics.
What the future holds for presidential socialization remains to be seen, but we can certainly enjoy the stories of how they used to enjoy themselves. Whether participating in sports, looking after the kids, or hunting game, presidents will do what they can to maintain their humanity and enjoy the company of others. The chance to formulate policy along the way is just a perk of the job.
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Bolluyt, Jess, “You’ll Never Believe How Many U.S. Presidents Loved and Even Played Football,” February 11, 2018, https://www.cheatsheet.com/culture/presidents-who-loved-or-played-football.html/
Haygood, Wil, “The Best (and Worst) White House Parties of All Time,” January 1, 2013, https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/politics/a2301/presidential-parties/.
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Zhou, Li, “Ten Fascinating Presidential Facts to Impress on Presidents’ Day, February 15, 2005, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/ten-fascinating-bits-of-presidential-trivia-180954227/.
“Dolley Madison,” https://www.whitehousehistory.org/bios/dolley-madison.
“Presidents and Baseball,” https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/baseball/.
“Then vs. Now: Exploring the Presidential Box,” https://www.fords.org/blog/post/then-vs-now-exploring-the-presidential-box/.
“What is the history of the White House Easter Egg Roll?” https://www.whitehousehistory.org/questions/what-is-the-history-of-the-white-house-easter-egg-roll.
Articles on the videosocialize.com blog are commissioned by VideoSocialize from talented writers with a variety of backgrounds. All articles copyright VideoSocialize. Would you be interested in sharing your thoughts on this article in a 4 person Zoom discussion which would be uploaded to YouTube? If so, please contact us.
Chris Hoitash has been writing for over two decades in multiple genres. He earned a B.S. and Master of Arts in history at Eastern Michigan University. Most of his writing tends to have some form of historical reference due to his fondness of the topic. A quirky and sarcastic broke Millennial, he’s fond of roleplaying games, anime, and alcohol, usually in some combination. He’s also among a handful of Michiganders who actually like snow.