Down-to-earth Harry S. Truman wasn’t into fashion trends, except, apparently, when it came to watches. During the 23-day Potsdam Conference convened in the summer of 1945 to determine the future of Germany, Truman wore the most popular chronograph of the time, a Universal Genève Tri-Compax. Universal Genève had introduced the watch the year before. The watch had so many admirers thanks in part to its very complicated, but elegant, styling. There were three chronograph subdials (the source of the watch’s name) and a moonphase-with-calendar display at 12 o’clock. Truman had a gold version of the watch. Truman also owned a Flying Officer’s Chronograph made by the Swiss firm Gallet. The watch, which had a rotating bezel enabling the wearer to read the time in time zones around the world, was given to him in 1939 by two members of his senatorial staff.
Being vice president does have its rewards. When Richard Nixon held that job, he gave a speech to the National Association of Watch and Clock Makers and received as a thank-you gift a Vulcain Cricket, widely acknowledged to be the first wristwatch with an alarm loud enough to wake someone up. In 1960, the year he first ran for president, Nixon wrote a note to Vulcain, saying of the watch, “It has given excellent service over the past five years and has served as my alarm clock around the world.”
When he took the oath of office on January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy wore an Omega Ultra Thin (Reference OT3980) given to him by the Florida senator Grant Stockdale. The caseback bore the inscription “President of the United States John F. Kennedy from his friend Grant.” Stockdale was clearly an optimist: he had given Kennedy the watch the prior summer, months before Kennedy’s hair’s-breadth win in November. (In December 2005, the Omega Museum, in Bienne, Switzerland, bought the watch at auction for $420,000.) Jacqueline Kennedy wrote a letter to Stockdale thanking him for the gift and graciously describing it as “nicer than the watch I gave him.” We don’t know what watch she was referring to, but Jacqueline Kennedy did give her husband a Louis Cartier Tank watch on their fourth wedding anniversary in 1957. The President was wearing this watch when he was assassinated in 1963. Kennedy received at least one other notable gift watch: a Hamilton given him in 1962 by then governor of Pennsylvania David Lawrence. The watch’s dial bore photo-engraved pictures of Kennedy’s children, Caroline and John.
Lyndon Baines Johnson also owned a Vulcain Cricket, as did both Truman and Eisenhower; Vulcain presented a Cricket to each of them. Johnson wore his in a 1964 photo on the cover of Newsweek. He wrote a note to Vulcain’s president thanking him for the watch. “I value it highly and feel somewhat less than dressed without it,” he said. Johnson also liked Rolex watches, specifically the Day-Date model nicknamed the “President” supposedly because of Johnson’s affection for it (although some experts say the watch was so named because Rolex gave a Day-Date to Eisenhower when he was in office; see above). LBJ sometimes gave Rolex watches to his friends. In 1973 he gave a gold Rolex to his cardiologist J. Willis Hurst, who had cared for him ever since his 1955 heart attack. Perhaps knowing that he would soon die, and therefore in a hurry to give Hurst the gift, Johnson instructed Hurst to take the watch to a jeweler himself and have the engraving done. The inscription was to read “To JWH/Love LBJ,” Johnson told Hurst. Embarrassed to make such a request, Hurst demurred, and Johnson wrote a letter to the store asking for the inscription. He died soon afterward.
Gerald Ford was in office during the digital-watch craze, which reached its full frenzy in the mid-1970s. Fittingly, he wore a digital: a Hamilton Pulsar (the Pulsar brand is now owned by Seiko). In a photo in the Washington Post, he is shown wearing the watch during the 1974 Congressional hearings on his pardon of Richard Nixon. Hamilton had introduced the Pulsar, the world’s first digital watch, in 1972, and an army of celebrities and politicians, Ford included, had found the high-tech gadget irresistible. Ford was so fond of his Pulsar that, when the brand came out with a souped-up, calculator version of the watch, he asked his wife Betty to get him one for Christmas of 1974. She declined, saying its price, $4,000, was too high.
George Herbert Walker Bush may very well have been done in by his watch. In one of the most famous incidents in watch history, Bush dealt his re-election bid a blow when, during a televised debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot on Oct. 15, 1992, he twice glanced at his watch as if he were bored with the proceedings and had somewhere more important to go. Asked about it years later during an interview on TV, Bush confirmed that he was, if not bored, at least impatient for the debate to end. “Was I glad the damn thing was over?” he asked, rhetorically, in self-defense. As the debate was ending, he was thinking to himself, “Only 10 more minutes and I’ll be done with this crap,” he told his interviewer.
Since Bill Clinton left the White House he’s become an absolute watch hound. He’s been known to wear a Panerai PAM89 GMT, a Franck Muller, a Roger Dubuis MuchMore, a Kobold Seal and a gold Cartier Ballon Bleu. The Swiss watch company Quinting has a photo of Clinton on its website wearing the brand’s Dove of Geneva watch. Quinting apparently gave a Dove of Geneva not just to Clinton, but also to four former presidents of Switzerland and a president of Algeria. Photos of all are on the website. Clinton wasn’t always a watch man. During his presidential campaign and the early years of his presidency, Clinton wore but one watch: a humble Timex Ironman Triathlon. He drew criticism for his loyalty: Gene Weingarten, a columnist for the Washington Post, described the Timex derisively as “a plastic digital watch, thick as a brick and handsome as a hernia.” Before and after the 1992 election, Omega ran advertisements suggesting Clinton should give up the Timex in favor of something more expensive. Finally, Clinton did. In 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Clinton attended the commemoration in France and was given an analog watch with leather strap from the French watch company Lip.
George W. Bush’s taste for the straightforward and intellectually accessible extended to watches as well. During his campaign, and perhaps afterward, he wore a Timex i-Control alarm watch, which Timex billed as “the world’s easiest to use alarm watch.” (He no doubt liked it also because of his famous concern with promptness.) To set the alarm, the wearer need only turn the bezel to the desired time and pull out a crown at 4 o’clock. We don’t know what watch it was that mysteriously disappeared from Bush’s wrist when he was shaking hands with admirers in Albania in June 2007. At the time, some suggested the watch had been stolen, but the White House said Bush had merely put the watch in his pocket so it would not fall off amid the crush of people.
During his campaign, Barack Obama often wore a TAG Heuer white-dial, quartz model from the Series 1500. (This is according to TAG Heuer aficionado Jeff Stein, who has examined many photos of Obama wearing the watch. In the summer of 2007, Obama started wearing a large Jorg Gray chronograph with a black dial given to him on his birthday (Aug. 4) by three members of his Secret Service detail. The watch bears the Secret Service seal. It was most likely this watch that fell off of Obama’s wrist during his Oct. 29, 2007 appearance on the “Ellen” show starring Ellen DeGeneres, an appearance in which he also demonstrated his dancing skills. The accident occurred when Obama punched a pink punching bag that was meant to symbolize breast cancer. Obama quickly picked the watch up and put it in his pocket.
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