Vacation One

When Presidents Pretend to Take a Break

President Obama has decided not to take his usual summer vacation at Martha’s Vineyard this year. He is apparently bowing to political concerns that he would look like a self-indulgent elitist if he went on holiday at a playground for the rich and famous while millions of Americans were suffering economic hardship and high unemployment.

It’s a familiar story.

Presidents have been sensitive about their vacation habits from the start of the republic. They struggle for years to get to the White House and then, once they get there, they seem desperate to get away from the place as much as they can.

Presidential absences from Washington have been criticized as an abdication of duty, or a regal indulgence insulting to less fortunate voters. This is more about optics than reality. As presidents and their defenders have been saying from the beginning, the commander-in-chief never really leaves behind the most demanding job in the world; the demands of the office travel with its occupant.

The public tends to be more tolerant when a president spends time at a home away from Washington than when he travels elsewhere. So life can be easier for presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan who happen to own lavish retreats than it is for presidents like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, for whom most vacations are an exercise in improvisation.

Criticism of presidential vacations resonates when there’s a perception that taxpayer dollars are footing the bills. The tradition is for presidents to pay for their accommodations, including rented vacation spots, while the taxpayers pay for Air Force One, communication, staff, security, and other official expenses of presidential travel, all of which can add up fast. Relocating White House operations to Kennebunkport, San Clemente, or Crawford for weeks is a costly proposition, but short trips to new destinations are what tend to capture the public ire. First lady Michelle Obama got much grief for her vacation in Spain with daughter Sasha in 2010, as the trip seemed profligate. Judicial Watch, basing its analysis on government documents, said the trip cost the Air Force and Secret Service at least $467,000.

Whether the escape is to a second home or to a stimulating new spot, each chief executive feels the desire to slip out of the ornate white fish bowl. George Washington talked about “the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me,” and he retreated as often as he could to his 8,000-acre plantation in Mount Vernon, Virginia–a total of 15 times over eight years, for periods ranging from several days to a few months. Washington was a micro-manager, setting forth in detail the diet and work schedules of his slaves and requiring his overseers to update him on conditions at the plantation even when he was away. He often responded with pages of suggestions contained in long business-like letters on which he lavished great attention, despite his official workload. He once wrote that he considered himself above all a Virginia planter, not a president or a general.

John Adams, the second president, spent many weeks at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. In fact, he holds the record for the longest continuous presidential vacation, eight months in 1799. In Quincy, he found relief from the heat and humidity in the temporary capital of Philadelphia, and he felt relatively safe from the outbreaks of yellow fever that struck the capital region periodically.

Thomas Jefferson called the presidency “a place of splendid misery,” and he left regularly for his plantation at Monticello, Virginia. More recently, Harry Truman called the White House “the great white jail,” and he spent weeks relaxing at the Navy’s submarine base in Key West, Florida, where he took over the commanding officer’s house.

John F. Kennedy romped with his children and relaxed on yachts off the Atlantic coast of his family estate in Hyannisport, Massachusetts. Ronald Reagan, one of the nation’s most frequent presidential vacationers, fled every summer, and during other periods, to his Rancho del Cielo near Santa Barbara, California. He told his aides that he preferred to be left alone with his wife Nancy, and they complied with his wishes as much as possible.

George W. Bush spent many weeks at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. He also was one of the most frequent presidential vacationers, spending all or part of 490 days at his ranch during 77 trips there over eight years. He ran into some serious political trouble for his holiday habits when he appeared to lose track of the life-and-death situation created by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 while he relaxed in central Texas.

Except for the current election season, Barack Obama has taken his holidays in rented homes at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts and in Hawaii, where he was born and mostly raised. His decision to pass up the Vineyard this summer was probably wise, considering how a vacation among the island’s elites might have clashed with his attempts to portray his opponent as an out-of-touch tycoon.

One of the most devoted vacationers was Franklin Roosevelt, who escaped to his home in Hyde Park, New York and to his rural retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. At Warm Springs, he exercised in the thermal springs that eased the discomfort in his legs, which were paralyzed by polio. Roosevelt also spent many weeks privately cruising on yachts and naval vessels up and down the Atlantic Coast, which relaxed and refreshed him. In those days, presidents didn’t have to put up with the scrutiny of the 24-hour news cycle, so FDR could take his jaunts without the country knowing about them.

Roosevelt also made a lasting contribution to presidential relaxation and stress management by creating a permanent presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, which he called Shangri-la. It was later renamed Camp David by Dwight Eisenhower in honor of his grandson. This retreat is a 20-minute helicopter ride away from the South Lawn of the White House.

Understandably, presidents and presidential wannabes endure the most intense scrutiny and the sharpest criticism when they go on holiday during hard times. In July, Republican candidate Mitt Romney felt some of the heat. During a news conference following the release of a jobs report showing unemployment at 8.2 percent, Romney was asked if he should be on vacation at all “as this rather grim economic news is coming out.”

Speaking at Bradley’s Hardware in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, near where he has an $8 million lakefront estate, Romney said, “I’m delighted to be able to take a vacation with my family. I think all Americans appreciate the memories that they have with their children and their grandchildren. I hope that more Americans are able to take vacations. And if I’m president of the United States, I’m going to work very hard to make sure we have good jobs for all Americans who want good jobs and, as part of a good job, the capacity to take a vacation now and then with their loved ones.” Romney went on to spend a week at his estate with 30 members of his extended family.

It reminded me of George H.W. Bush, another son of privilege who vacationed with his big family at his seaside estate in Kennebunkport, Maine during economic hard times. Some commentators thought he paid a price, with TV pictures of the president in his speedboat fueling the perception, exploited Bill Clinton in the 1992 elections, that Bush was out of touch.

Clinton was careful to avoid alienating voters during his own re-election bid four years later. He went on vacation at national parkland in the West. He based his decision in part on private polls focusing on where he should go. After he won re-election, he returned to his favorite vacation spot–Martha’s Vineyard.

My view, having covered the vacations of five presidents over the years, is that the public has considerable tolerance for their presidents taking holidays. Americans know their leader needs a break, just like they do.

Kenneth T. Walsh is the author of From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats. Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes a daily blog, “Ken Walsh’s Washington,” and is the author of “The Presidency” column in the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at and on Facebook and Twitter.

*Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy New Delhi.


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