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The Unabridged (But Sadly Unillustrated) History of Political Skinny-Dipping

The news that Kansas Republican Representative Kevin Yoder went skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee made a big splash this weekend. But Yoder is hardly the first politician to strip down for a leisurely swim. A small sampling of previous naked-swimming statesmen:

John Quincy Adams. The sixth president was, arguably, the founding father of skinny-dipping. As a morning ritual of sorts, he’d wake at first light and walk down to the Potomac for a denuded dip. Evidently this was no secret to Washington insiders: According to DC lore, Anne Royall, one of the first female journalists, met Adams at the shore during one of his swims, sat on his clothes, and demanded that he answer her questions. 

Theodore Roosevelt. The great naturalist liked to disrobe and commune with nature on occasion. But Teddy didn’t limit his skinny-dipping to private recreation; one might say it was all part of his, er, “big stick diplomacy.” In 1903, Roosevelt and Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot took the French Ambassador for a jaunt in the woods. When they got to the Potomac, Pinchot and the President took off their clothes and dove in. The more demure ambassador eventually joined them, but kept his kidskin gloves on as a precaution: “We might meet ladies,” he explained.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt. T.R.’s younger cousin also apparently thought skinny-dipping could break down political barriers. Among some of the papers in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Presidential Library is a “stag party” invitation—issued in 1937 by FDR himself in an effort to win over the good will of Congressional Democrats. Activities at the stag party included fishing, clay pigeon shooting, and, most notably, swimming naked. 

John F. Kennedy. In his account of the more sordid side of the Kennedy political dynasty, Seymour Hersh reports that JFK frequently took nude dips in the White House pool to unwind. He wasn’t always alone. Sometimes his advisers and his brothers Robert and Teddy would jump in with him. And, according to Hersh, on at least one occasion the President invited two young female assistants—nicknamed Fiddle and Faddle—to join him in the water. The pool party was broken up when Jackie O came home early.

Lyndon Johnson. Shortly after being sworn in, LBJ invited Billy Graham to the White House for an “encounter that included both prayer and skinny-dipping in the White House pool,” according to a Time article by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy. “That no one had brought a bathing suit was no deterrent,” Gibbs and Duffy write in their book The Preacher and the Presidents. “In years to come the president would often interrupt meetings to suggest a swim and needle anyone who was reluctant to strip naked and dive in a baptism in intimacy.” 

Wilbur Mills. OK, the Arkansas Democrat wasn’t actually naked. But when he was found drunk at the edge of the National Mall’s tidal basin with a stripper who went by the stage name Fanne Fox, both his companion and his reputation took a dive. After leaping into the water, Fanne Fox was taken to the hospital. Mills somehow got re-elected a month later.

Jimmy Carter. A 1976 profile of Jimmy Carter in Newsweek gave a sketch of his childhood in Depression-era Georgia. The paragraph is a veritable pastoral ode to the simple charms of the South: “a sheltered world with ‘no villains’ and lots of country pleasures—a spare-tire swing and a tree house in a mulberry out back; catfishing in the swamps and skinny-dipping in a 6-by-12 pond; a pony named Lady and a bulldog called Bozo; a first date at 13 in the family pickup and loosely chaperoned smooching in back seats outside the Baptist prom party.”

Jon Grunseth. Who? Exactly. Grunseth is the apparently rare pol whose career was derailed by allegations of skinny-dipping: The Minnesota Republican’s 1990 run for governor abruptly ended when allegations arose that he had orchestrated a naked Fourth of July pool party with a bunch of teenage girls—including his own daughter. The candidate denied the charges but told the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, “I think it’s fair to say that there was a period in my life, through the late ’70s and the early ’80s, when I was very much a warm-blooded American male.”