A View from Here

Bill's Sisson's weekly Trade Only blog

Presidential politics, presidential ‘yachts’

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.


9 comments on “Presidential politics, presidential ‘yachts’

  1. Kirk Rottschafer

    Great commentary. Putting gas in your own boat is a whole lot cheaper than using Air Force One as a daily taxi to wherever the next speech is thought neccesary.

  2. enginecom

    Vote for Obama or the alternative is to get a job. Those who work for a living can afford a boat. I belong to a working mans yacht club. We hire nobody to do our work. Everyone owns their boat, no big yachts and big loans. It’s a wonder POTUS isn’t trying to reintroduce the luxury tax. Remember what that did to our industry? Romney like GHW Bush has the boat bug, good for him. When Mitt was governor of MA he saved a family whose mahogany speedboat lost a plank outside his NH house. The guy is legit. Obama is a fake. When the electorate realizes this we can live again without fear of the government ruining our country. Go Mitt!

  3. M Taylor

    Everyone poo-poos Kerry for building a NZ yacht, but at least he register his boat and paid US state tax when the boat was finally in his control. But the very wealthy register offshore in tax shelters. I work for some of them.

  4. Wayne

    Any pol owning, renting, operating a boat, regardless of size will be a prime target for nitwits until the end of time. What these fools neglect to understand is that all Americans are entitled to enjoy time with their families any way they wish, as long as they PAY for it with their own hard-earned money. In Romney’s case, he made money, he spends it and in turn, puts other Americans to work. What’s so hard to understand here? And in all fairness, if Obama wants to spend his money renting a home in Hawaii, who should care? He’s with his famiy and they’re recreating. I cannot think of a better way of keeping money working here in the good old USA.

  5. captbh

    M Taylor,

    You are only partially correct. There are those who register off shore to avoid taxes but if you count the actual numbers you will find that there are far more 60 TO 100 footers with foreign flags than there are 150 to 200 footers.

    While it is true that most mega-yachts are foreign flagged, in many cases the owner has no choice. I WORK FOR ONE OF THEM!

    The united states does not have a registry class for a private, recreational vessel over 300 tons. If the boat is 300 tons it is classed as a commercial ship. It must be equipped, manned and certified exactly the same as a cargo or cruise ship of the same size.

    In todays world a 300 ton yacht is not that big. The one I work on is 128 feet and 340 GT. The only way the owner can operate this boat as a private vessel is to fly a foreign flag, something he hates. He has owned 6 yachts in his life and this is the first that he has been forced to flag out of the country.

    He would gladly pay sales tax and fly the American flag tomorrow IF the government would get their head out of their butt and allow it. In the mean time he has no choice.

    He still employs Americans, cruises US waters, spends money on US fuel, US shipyard stays and US food, parts and supplies. And by the way the boat was built in Tacoma WA which the last time I checked was in the US.

    Perhaps we should look at the laws that prevent mega-yacht owners from flagging in the US rather than critizing them.

    We migfht look at all the mid-sized boats who COULD fly the US flag and CHOOSE not to!

    By the way, Mr. Kerry tried to register his foreign built small boat out of state to avoid taxes until the press caused a public outcry. Then he changed his mind!

    I wonder if he would help my boss get a US flag??????????

  6. Bill

    Sisson’s article makes no useful point.

    Yes, Jimmy Carter got rid of Sequoia. It was a waste of taxpayer’s money. Who cares.
    Yes, various presidents and other public officials have owned boats or enjoyed boating. So what.

    Sisson should concentrate his commentaries on subjects that concern the marine industry.

    By the way, the only thing “strangling” the marine industry is a lousy economy. W’s two wars and a huge tax cut, all off-budget,and unregulated Wall Street bandits put our economy in the toilet. Now Mitt wants to provide upper income taxpayers with another tax cut without specifying how he will pay for it, other than saying he will close unified loopholes. Fool me once………….

  7. Rod

    The boat that John Kerry got in “hot water” over wasn’t even his, the Yacht was owned and registered in the name of his Wife’s company. Now, that doesn’t mean that is wasn’t really his and he really WAS trying to skirt the system…….. heck, plenty of people (even the not so rich) commit that fraud, but still the evidence still says that the boat belonged to his Wife’s company, not John F. Kerry. Don’t forget, he made his money the old fashioned way……..he married it! I can’t stand Senator Kerry, especially his aversion to giving clear answers to questions…. but I will continue to stick up for him in this yacht issue until I see proof of wrongdoing on his part.

  8. Richard

    As a life long boater and now a retired full time live-aboard, I think Bill Sission’ s article is interesting. It was inevitable though that politics would rear it’s ugly head. If you are in the boating business or love the sport, err, lifestyle, do you think you will be better off with a Democrat or Republican leader? You can put an “R” next to my name! Also, regarding Wall Street, you can thank Christopher J. Dodd (D) for looking the other way on the banking commission. I know, I am from CT.

  9. Doug Reimel

    A boat is a powerfull symbol. Were else can you take your family to a confined space were everyone is forced to interact and talk to each other. A boat is a powerful symbol of someone who works hard for what they have in terms of material items. A boat is a symbol of self respect, a symbol of family. After all if you own a boat, you do not sit on the porch waiting for what crumbs the government gives you.

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