Tee Time: The Optics of Presidential Vacations
WASHINGTON – Franklin Delano Roosevelt used to hop on the presidential railcar, the Ferdinand Magellan, and roll down to Warm Springs, Ga., seeking relief for his shriveled legs.
Harry Truman would gather his cronies, including Chief Justice Fred Vinson, and head for what became known as the Little White House in Key West, Fla., for marathon poker games and afternoons of fishing. Those trips were vital, Give-Em-Hell Harry once explained, because 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was the “crown jewel of the American prison system.”
Not to be outdone, Ronald Reagan embraced Rancho del Cielo, better known as the Western White House, near Santa Barbara, Calif., where he could ride horses and occasionally delight pool photographers by wielding an ax to chop wood.
The history of presidential vacations is a long one. John Adams, the second president, left Washington, D.C., in 1798 to tend to his ailing wife, Abigail, back in Massachusetts.
He didn’t return for seven months.
That trip and similar presidential retreats have almost always drawn criticism – biographer David McCullough reported that Adams foes tried to start a war with France during his prolonged absence and even joked that he had abdicated.
It’s no different today. President Obama heard the grunts and groans before his return to the White House Sunday afternoon after two days of golf and family activities at the Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo, Fla.
“Only President Obama would deliver a brief speech about education and then have the nerve to jet over to the posh Ocean Reef Clubs -- an exclusive members-only resort for the wealthy -- for a quick vacation,” said Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “As President Obama enjoys the Florida Keys and Vice President Biden vacations in the Virgin Islands for the weekend, their economic policies are still leaving millions of middle-class Americans and young adults struggling to get by in the Obama economy.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican from Georgia, made note of Obama’s vacation plans during an appearance at the recently concluded meeting of CPAC, tying the weekend trip to the ongoing crisis in the Crimea.
"I believe he can be as ineffective in Key Largo as he was in the White House,” Gingrich said.
The White House ignored the jibes and insisted Obama conducted his sundry duties without complications over the three-day weekend.
"The fact of the matter is what the president is doing this weekend in Florida is essentially what the president would be doing if he stayed back at the White House," administration spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama. The president, he said, was looking forward to "getting a little bit of downtime in the warm weather with his wife and daughters."
The Key Largo trip was Obama’s third holiday so far this year. He and his family took a 15-day vacation trip to his native Hawaii over Christmas and spent a weekend in California after a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan near Palm Springs.
Over his first five-plus years in office, Obama has unofficially taken about 120 vacation days, meaning that by the end of his tenure the total likely will come up short of 200 days, which would place him well below the usual rest and relaxation level assumed by many of his predecessors.
According to unofficial records compiled by Mark Knoller, longtime White House correspondent for CBS Radio, the all-time vacation record-holder is Obama’s predecessor, former President George W. Bush, who racked up 1,020 vacation days during his eight-year tenure.
Unless Obama picks up the tempo considerably, Bush’s record appears safe. In fact, he could wind up having taken five times as many days off as Obama if current trends hold.
One Bush vacation in August 2005, spent primarily at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he cleared brush and visited with family and friends, ate up five weeks, the longest period any president spent away from Washington in 36 years.
Bush, who had little success hiding his distaste for Washington and its ways, remained only rarely in the nation’s capital over presidential weekends, preferring getaways to Camp David, the presidential compound in Maryland, or even his parents’ estate in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Reagan also took his share of days off – and then some, according to critics. Records show Reagan spent all or part of 335 days at Rancho del Cielo during his eight presidential years.
While both Bush and Reagan took more days, however, the Obama vacations may ultimately prove to have been more expensive. The costs are impossible to calculate -- no White House has been forthcoming about vacation expenses. But PolitiFact.com reasonably notes that Bush and Reagan spent most of their down time at their private ranches, which often became sites of working vacations. The government may have proved able to save some trip costs by permanently setting up shop at the ranches. Obama, meanwhile, visits various locales and very rarely hits his official residence in Chicago.
The fact remains presidents look for time off. Richard M. Nixon famously frequented Key Biscayne, Fla., with his friend Bebe Rebozo. George H.W. Bush often took off for Maine. Bill Clinton, who spent 174 vacation days away from D.C. – low by modern standards – liked Martha's Vineyard but switched to Jackson, Wyo., for a couple years, viewing it as more politically advantageous to his re-election campaign.
White House spokespeople, and the presidents themselves, are quick to note they never go on vacation in the traditional sense. Given modern communications technology and support, the Oval Office “is wherever the president of the United States is,” as former Reagan aide Ken Duberstein once said.
Daily briefings reportedly remain routine on most vacation days. George W. Bush dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans, leaving Crawford to visit the scene. George H.W. Bush planned America’s response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait during a stay in Kennebunkport and Clinton called for airstrikes on al-Qaeda encampments during a stint at Martha’s Vineyard.
“Presidents don’t get vacations — they just get a change of scenery,” former first lady Nancy Reagan once said. “The job goes with you.”