Monday, March 7, 2011
The Floating White House
Seventy-eight years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt stood before the American people and told us the only thing we have to fear is fear itself - words we would do well to ponder today.
The pressures on FDR were almost unbearable, and he got away from it all by going fishing on his presidential yacht, the USS Potomac.
That's the official version. But I think he really did it to get away from Mrs. Nesbitt.
Henrietta Nesbitt was the White House cook; and her food was worse than inedible, it was disgusting.
"And the worst part was that the menu was always the same, week after week and year after year," says senior lead docent Bill Hodges, one of the hundreds of volunteers who are keeping the Potomac alive, more than 65 years after FDR's death.
"Monday was boiled tongue, Tuesday was boiled chicken and broccoli - and he really hated broccoli - Wednesday was overcooked roast beef, Thursday was sweetbreads - and he hated sweetbreads, too - and so on.
"But aboard the Potomac the Navy stewards would cook the fish he caught on a little hot plate, supplemented by fresh crabs that local fisherman would sell the president as their boats came alongside. Security was a lot less strict in those days."
No matter how many times he begged Eleanor to fire Mrs. Nesbitt, she never did. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says it was because Eleanor's idea of a good dinner was great conversation, not good food. Personally, I think it was payback for Lucy Mercer.
Eleanor rarely came aboard the Potomac - she was prone to seasickness - but FDR's Scottish terrier, Fala, was a frequent visitor.
"Fala was not popular with the crew because he refused to use the sandbox," says Hodges. "He'd relieve himself on the ship's mooring lines, instead."
After FDR's death in 1945 the Potomac was decommissioned and went through a succession of owners. The last one decided to junk her and turn her into scrap.
But at the last moment a rescuer stepped up - none other than Elvis Presley!
He bought the Potomac and donated her to St. Jude's Hospital. The ship's later adventures included being turned into a floating disco and being seized by the DEA for drug running.
She was finally bought at auction in 1981 by the Port of Oakland for only $15,000. Under the leadership of FDR's eldest son, James, the ship was restored as close as possible to the way she was in the days when FDR fished off the fantail.
Today, she's a floating museum docked at Jack London Square. Thousands of schoolchildren have visited her.
Alas, nobody foresaw this recession, and two years ago the Port of Oakland was forced to cancel its financial support. But the ship's operating expenses go on.
One day, the economy is going to bounce back. The only question is whether the Potomac can stay afloat until then. It would be a shame if she can't.
If you want to help, one way is to visit the ship. Go to www.usspotomac.org for a schedule of dockside tours, historical Bay cruises and special events.
Even better, you can become a member of the Friends of the Potomac. Go to the website or call 510-627-1215 for details.
Don't give up the ship.