Making The White House A Home

With a script straight out of "Field of Dreams," President Bush on Friday announced his intention to build a T-ball field, complete with wooden bleachers, on the White House lawn. "We've got a pretty good-sized backyard here," he told a White House gathering of Baseball Hall-of-Famers. "And maybe, with the help of some groundskeepers, we can play ball on the South Lawn."

Instead of shoeless Joe, the president is expecting local Little Leaguers, between the ages of 5 and 8, to show up for once-a-month games on his field. (T-ball is baseball for the chicken-fingers set; to play, kids swing at a stationary ball on a standing tee instead of at pitches.) Coaches may be drafted from Bush's own White House team, and could include Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld.

The baseball diamond might be a White House first, but Bush is hardly breaking new ground with his attempt to personalize the presidential environs. Since the day George Washington sketched out plans for reflecting pools and water cascades for the 82-acre-gardens of his dream "Presidential Palace," American presidents have been re-imagining and reshaping the White House according to personal whims. Their collective additions to the presidential playground include a movie theater, billiards room, tennis court, outdoor pool and putting green.

In 1992, before Clinton had even moved into the White House, he hatched a plan to build the $30,000 rubberized jogging track made of recycled tires that now circles the White House driveway. (Clinton came up with the track idea after a few failed experiments with jogging in the streets of Washington. The traffic jams he created-and the lure of local McDonalds-made the route impractical.) Construction on the track began just as Clinton was announcing a 1993 tax increase and it created controversy, until the president assured the public that the track would be funded privately. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and other Republicans jointly chipped in $250 for the project, for the sake of clearing traffic.

CLINTON'S HOT TUB, BUSH'S HORSESHOE PIT

To ease his postjog muscle aches and to speed his recovery from a 1997 knee surgery, Clinton also installed an $8,100 seven-seater Grandee model hot tub at the White House, a donation from the manufacturer (and one of the gifts that Clinton left behind when he departed in January). While in office, Clinton removed the White House horseshoe pit, a dig at his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, who loved the game.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first to install a putting green at the White House, but Clinton upgraded the green in 1995, on a patch of grass just outside the Oval Office. Clinton was known to take regular golf breaks, during which he'd knock a few balls and throw tennis balls for Buddy, his pet chocolate lab. According the man who designed the green, there's one spot from which the ball breaks perfectly into the hole, so that any president can look like a pro.

Former president Bush also devoted himself to expanding the White House sports facilities. In addition to re-digging the horseshoe pit, which was originally put in by Harry Truman, Bush also installed a 26-by-26 foot basketball court for the White House staff. Bush himself preferred the White House tennis court, and he often invited tennis stars to come play with him.

The Reagans devoted most of their energies to redesign the White House interior: They spent more than $1 million remodeling the family quarters. But Ronald Reagan did create special White House tennis Izod shirts that were distributed to anyone who used the White House court.

AMY CARTER'S TREEHOUSE

Jimmy Carter and had little interest in extravagant home improvements. Instead of adding to facilities, Carter scaled back the White House holdings, selling 300 television sets, numerous vehicles and the presidential yacht. He did, however, allow his daughter, Amy Carter, to build a treehouse on the White House lawn. When she wasn't busy roller-skating in White House ball rooms, she used the position for a bird's-eye view of Rose Garden ceremonies. Carter himself played tennis frequently on the tennis court, first installed by Teddy Roosevelt in 1903. It is said that Carter, an obsessive micromanager, liked to keep the tennis court schedule himself; he was once photographed in rubber boots, hosing down the court.

While Richard Nixon used taxpayer money to install an ice maker and gazebo at his Florida home (which became the subject of a congressional inquiry), he did away with the White House indoor pool in 1974, laying a floor over it and designating the space a press briefing room. Originally installed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 for his polio therapy and for water polo games, the pool was a popular presidential perk. Seymour Hersh writes in "The Dark Side of Camelot" that John F. Kennedy used the pool regularly to entertain female visitors. The move was part of Nixon's strategy to get nosy reporters out of the West Wing hallways, where, until his tenure, they were allowed to roam relatively freely. Curious reporters can still pry up a certain floor panel, and peer into the empty swimming pool, which is now crammed with wiring. (In 1975, Gerald Ford built an outdoor pool. He swam daily and once delivered a press briefing from the water.)

Nixon also renovated the White House billiards room, furnishing it with pool tables and table tennis. The original was demolished by Rutherford B. Hayes. In addition, Nixon rebuilt a bowling alley in the White House basement, which Harry Truman had installed and Dwight Eisenhower had removed.

The White House movie theater was the innovation of Franklin Roosevelt in 1942, and now features La-Z-Boy recliners in the front row. Clinton was an avid movie-watcher, and regularly invited pals over for screenings. In an early bipartisan gesture, George W. Bush invited members of the Kennedy clan over in January for a screening of "Thirteen Days."

PRESIDENTIAL SKINNY-DIPS

Andrew Jackson took a hands-on approach to the White House grounds. After a naked swim in the Potomac each morning, he'd spend some time in the White House Garden, planting flowers, vegetables, fruits and doing a bit of weeding. In a similar spirit, Franklin Pierce installed a greenhouse on top of the West Terrace, and John F. Kennedy ordered the redesign of many White House gardens, including the renovations of the Rose Garden.

Presidential construction projects, in short, are a reflection of presidential character traits. So what does the T-ball field say about George W? Is it symbolic of his commitment to American issues? Is he a Little League president, not quite ready for the big time? Bush says he wants only to "help preserve the best of baseball right here in the house that Washington built"-and, he forgot to mention, that every president since has added to.

Making The White House A Home | News