It’s August, and the political chattering class–never very mature to begin with–have, in their lack of interest in any substantive matters, spilled a lot of magnetic ink over President Obama’s recent vacation to Martha’s Vineyard. With everything else ridiculously polarized in American society, I suppose it’s inevitable this would be too, with conservative commentators shrieking from the rooftops that Obama has no right to ignore his job while very pressing matters–like the alarming actions by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in the Middle East–are going on. This salvo of criticism is invariably followed by a rejoinder from the left, citing the number of days George W. Bush spent on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas during the Iraq War; I’ve even seen bar graphs comparing the vacation days of recent Presidents, making the point that Obama “slacks off” considerably less than Republican presidents, whom the conservative commentators did not criticize at the time.
These infantile, playground-level arguments patently ignore both the reality and the history of Presidential vacations. I had the subject on my mind last week when I found, in the Massachusetts Historical Society, Thomas Jefferson’s “Weather Book,” which among other things documented how much time he spent in Washington (as little as possible) versus home at Monticello (where he spent several months out of every year). Of course, in 1805 there was no ISIS, although there were Barbary Pirates; and it is true that Jefferson received criticism for being gone so long. But the history of Presidential vacations is an interesting topic in that it helps illuminate how the office of the President has changed over 225 years, and how political guttersniping really hasn’t.
John Adams, 7 months away from Washington. Slacker in chief? More like primary caregiver.
Let’s get the record holder out of the way first. James Madison, the fourth President, checked out of the White House in June 1816 and didn’t return for four months. John Adams, the second President, was technically gone longer–he was at home in Massachusetts for a whopping 7 months during 1798, but a large portion of this time away was spent caring for his deathly ill wife, Abigail. Jefferson, as I mentioned, also spent months away from Washington. So did Chester Arthur, but he happened to be dying of kidney disease, so he obviously gets a bye. Garfield too was away from the White House for weeks on end, but there was this little matter of the bullet lodged in his back, which got there while he was (ironically) about to board a train to go on vacation. You see how this works? Pretty much everybody has extenuating circumstances.
Here’s some more extenuating circumstances. Up until the 20th century, living in Washington, D.C., and especially at the White House, was actually hazardous to a person’s health. Most rich people who lived in cities in the first 100-120 years of the Republic tended to flee the cities during the summer months, primarily to escape the perennial outbreaks of diseases like cholera, yellow fever and malaria. Washington was built on a swamp and malaria was endemic there for a long time. Furthermore, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Congress was out of session from (usually) late spring until the following December. In the days when stagecoaches were cutting-edge transportation technology, there was little reason for a President to hang around the White House when Congress wasn’t in session. No bills would be passed potentially requiring his signature (or his pocket veto, which is the real reason he had to be within striking distance while Congress was working). Before telegraphs and telephones, at least, a crisis that moved faster than horse- or sail-borne transportation was not likely to require the President’s attention anyway, so what did he have to lose by preserving his health? So that takes care of the 19th century crowd.
In the 20th century, Presidential vacations changed, because the presidency was changing too. A far cry from Jefferson riding solo to Monticello or John Adams catching a horse-drawn bus outside the White House to start his journey home in 1801, modern Presidents traveled with entourages of aides and facilitators of communication. Probably the most prodigious vacationer among 20th century execs was Franklin Roosevelt, who often retreated to Warm Springs, Georgia, to a special institute (which he owned) that catered to patients, like himself, who were paralyzed by polio. Yet between 1933 and 1945 you could be reasonably certain that if a Depression threatened or Hitler attacked somebody, you could get FDR on the phone down in Georgia. Similarly, JFK was surrounded by aides and employees while vacationing at his family’s compound in Hyannisport, and his successor Lyndon Johnson had conference rooms at the ready at his Texas ranch, from which he occasionally directed operations in Vietnam. And by then Camp David, a retreat especially designed for Presidential vacations, was an institution of the office.
This famous picture of Richard and Pat Nixon, used in 1972 campaign materials, was taken on the beach at San Clemente, where Nixon’s vacation home was named the “Western White House.”
This underscores the point: is it even possible for a modern President to go on vacation? Sure, there are photos of Obama hitting some golf balls around, but what you don’t see in the pictures is the military aide with the nuclear launch codes who’s always standing nearby. If ISIS chose the precise moment to attack while Obama was teeing up on hole four, does anybody really think he wouldn’t know about it in seconds? Especially if there was a key decision he needed to make, right now? Incidentally, I saw a figure quoted this morning that Obama ordered 93 airstrikes against ISIS targets in Iraq while he was at Martha’s Vineyard last week. When you go on vacation, do you order airstrikes along with your margaritas?
There’s another point being missed here too. Don’t we want Presidents to blow off steam, unwind and relax? He (soon, she) has the most stressful job on planet Earth. If the President of the United States is not, of all people, entitled to as much vacation as he or she wants, no one on the planet ever is. In the 1990s I remember reading that Bill Clinton often took afternoon naps in the Oval Office. If a 2-hour nap every day at 3:00 clears the President’s head and makes him more effective at the job we elected him to do, why isn’t that a positive? Why would anyone criticize this?
That’s all I’ll say about Presidential vacations. Now, who wants to go get a beer?