President John F. Kennedy opens gifts during a birthday party aboard the Sequoia, as Jackie Kennedy looks on.» View enlargement
A floating retreat, the USS Sequoia was one of the places presidents from Hoover to Carter found to escape the rigors of office. Richard Nixon came to the 104-foot-long vessel on perhaps the most difficult moment of his presidency, the day he announced his resignation. Now there's an effort to preserve the former presidential yacht. NPR's Susan Stamberg reports.
The Sequoia hosted White House parties, foreign chiefs of state — and, lately, rich revelers willing to pay $10,000 per night to sail the Potomac River. Stamberg recently got a tour of the National Historic Landmark from Giles Kelly, a retired Navy officer who was the Sequoia's captain in the 1980s.
Kelly says Nixon brought his family aboard when he was about to resign in 1974, perhaps in an effort to spare them from being pestered by reporters. "They had this cruise down to Mount Vernon that evening," Kelly says. "But, of course, they were followed by a press boat. And it was very uncomfortable for the Nixon children. They said it was like bobbing along in a fishbowl. It really must have been a very sad occasion. But you know, they all sat down and sang, and the president played 'God Bless America.'"
The 78-year-old yacht was sold to the government in 1931 during the Depression. For a time, the Commerce Department used the boat to patrol the Chesapeake and to trap rum-runners during Prohibition. Herbert Hoover was the first president to use the Sequoia. Franklin D. Roosevelt fished from it. Lyndon Johnson took members of Congress aboard, and refused to let them return to shore until they agreed with him.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter sold the Sequoia — "the yacht was a bit too imperial for his down-home presidency," Stamberg reports. In 1999, a collector of presidential memorabilia bought the Sequoia for almost $2 million, restored it, and rents it out now — for $10,000 a night.
Kelly is trying to help raise $10 million to preserve the Sequoia as a historic entity. "She's such a grand boat that I just can't imagine her deteriorating and being left to rot..." he says.