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Sequoia Yacht Preserves U.S. History
The Associated Press, Mon 12 Aug 2002

WASHINGTON (AP) Franklin Roosevelt installed a hand-operated elevator. Lyndon Johnson had it converted into a bar. Winston Churchill found the deck chairs uncomfortable. John F. Kennedy celebrated his last birthday in the salon. 

After 77 years afloat, the yacht Sequoia has stories to tell, even though it hasn't been a presidential cruiser since Jimmy Carter sold it in 1977 as an unwanted symbol of the imperial presidency. 

According to legend, the fish deck of the Sequoia, an isolated perch at the stern of the boat, was one of the few places in Washington where Richard Nixon felt comfortable. 

Nixon cruised on the Sequoia 88 times during his presidency, discussed Vietnam policy with Henry Kissinger there, negotiated a Cold War arms agreement with Leonid Brezhnev on its top deck and, as Watergate grew to gigantic proportions, decided he must resign his presidency 

There is a story, says Gary Silversmith, the current private owner of the Sequoia, that on one of his last visits, when a steward poured his customary second scotch, Nixon unexpectedly, and for the first time, asked him to leave the bottle. 

``If the president wants you to leave the bottle, you leave the bottle,'' the captain reportedly responded when the steward reported what had happened. 

Silversmith, 46, a lawyer and collector of presidential memorabilia, bought Sequoia for a reported $1.9 million. He has berthed the boat on the Washington waterfront and charters it for $10,000 a cruise. He says the yacht has been used for political fund-raisers for both Republican and Democratic candidates and has proved popular enough that it has paid its own expenses. 

On a recent tour the Sequoia was flooded with sunlight, its teak and mahogany cabins hung with framed photographs of presidents and their guests, its wheelhouse fitted with a brass plaque listing the Navy officers who served as skipper from 1933 to 1977. 

Silversmith says the vessel, a designated national historic site, is almost certainly the most important piece of presidential history in private hands. 

Built in 1925, the 104-foot, 150-ton Sequoia has a presidential suite, captain's quarters and two guest cabins. President Kennedy had a slot built into the transom above the door to his quarters so he could receive official papers while preserving his privacy. According to Silversmith, it was taken out of naval service to avoid the rule of no alcohol aboard a Navy ship. 

There's some irony there because the Sequoia first saw government service as part of the effort to enforce prohibition. 

The yacht was recruited for presidential service by Herbert Hoover, who played medicine ball on its top deck and used it for a Florida vacation. A photograph of the yacht is the centerpiece of his 1932 White House Christmas card. 

A reproduction of the card hangs in the yacht's salon with this inscription: ``Some public opinion felt that Hoover's promotion of the Sequoia was an indication of his inability to grasp the suffering caused by the depression.'' 

That didn't cause Franklin Roosevelt, Hoover's successor, to use the boat any less. There are photographs of FDR happily catching a fish on the Fish Deck. 

Roosevelt and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower discussed plans for D-Day on the Sequoia. 

Harry Truman is said to have pondered his decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan while in seclusion on the Sequoia. Years later, President Ford used the yacht to entertain Emperor Hirohito. 

Truman installed a piano that both he and Nixon played. Truman also used the boat to play poker with friends. There's a Sequoia legend that during one tense game he slammed the 20-foot dining table, leaving a scar. 

FDR, who used a wheelchair because of polio, had a hand-operated elevator installed so he could more easily move from his cabin to the main deck. Silversmith said that made Sequoia about the first handicapped-accessible boat in U.S. waters. 

Johnson converted Roosevelt's elevator into a service bar and had the shower in the presidential stateroom lowered to better fit his tall frame. 

Nixon embarked his family on Sequoia to tell them of his decision to resign the presidency, but the trip was not the quiet time he had hoped for. 

Photographers lined the bridges along the Potomac River, peering down as the boat passed beneath. 

``We were the subject of a death watch,'' daughter Julie said later. ``Being on the Sequoia was like bobbing along in a glass bottle.'' 

 

EDITOR'S NOTE Lawrence L. Knutson has reported on Congress, the White House and Washington's history for 34 years. 

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