Crises Often Intrude When Presidents Take Vacation Breaks
Call it the curse of the presidential vacation: Surf, sun, sand and crises.
It’s a ritual that Barack Obama became a part of during his first summer as president in 2009: He interrupted his August vacation in Martha’s Vineyard to reappoint Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, protests against his health-care plan erupted at town-hall meetings across the U.S., and Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, a Democratic Party icon, died.
Obama, 52, returned to the resort island this week during another period of unrest. Facing growing tension with Russia before a Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg, new concerns about al-Qaeda terrorism, and across-the-board budget cuts in military and domestic programs, Obama and his team are preparing for the unexpected.
“He’s looking forward very much to some downtime with his family,” press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on the flight down to Martha’s Vineyard last weekend. “But, of course, news happens, and it’s hard to predict.”
What’s not hard to predict is the criticism of presidential vacations. Democrats attacked George W. Bush for spending weeks clearing brush on his Texas ranch during the Iraq War. In August 2011, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate who took frequent breaks at his estates in California and New Hampshire, assailed Obama for not spending his week at the White House trying to create jobs.
Obama has taken far less time away from the White House than his predecessor. While Obama has spent 92 days on 14 vacations, Bush spent 323 days at his ranch and 26 days at his family vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine, at the same point of his presidency, according to CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller, who keeps detailed records of presidential travel.
Not all of Bush’s time was holiday. He hosted 16 heads of state and other dignitaries at his ranch by this point in his presidency, according to a Crawford, Texas promotional website.
“Criticism of presidential vacations is almost as old as the presidency itself,” said Brendan Doherty, a political scientist at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
Since George Washington first ditched the President’s House in Philadelphia for his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia, presidents have had to balance the need to rest and relax and the imperative to be prepared when world events intrude.
President Dwight Eisenhower interrupted his vacation in Newport, Rhode Island, after mobs of segregationists prevented nine black students from attending Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. After a meeting with Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus in Rhode Island failed to stem the crisis, Eisenhower raced back to Washington to explain in a televised address his decision to dispatch federal troops.
“I could have spoken from Rhode Island, where I have been staying recently, but I felt that, in speaking from the house of Lincoln, of Jackson and of Wilson, my words would more clearly convey both the sadness I feel in the action I was compelled today to take and the firmness with which I intend to pursue this course,” Eisenhower said in his Sept. 24, 1957, speech from the White House.
President Jimmy Carter encountered a “killer rabbit” during a 1979 fishing trip that became a symbolic precursor of his 1980 re-election defeat. While out on a pond in Georgia, Carter beat back a swimming rabbit with his paddle, he later recounted to aides. The story carried the headline in the Washington Post, “President Attacked By Rabbit,” that was quickly used by Carter’s opponents as a metaphor for a hapless and weakened presidency.
In 2005, Bush ended a month-long vacation at his ranch two days early to survey -- from the sky on Air Force One -- the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, after facing criticism for remaining away while New Orleans flooded. Bush later said that observing the damage from the air was a “huge mistake” since it made him look “detached and uncaring.”
Four years later, Obama struggled to manage the political fallout from his vacation in Hawaii when a 23-year-old Nigerian attempted to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
This week, White House aides say they don’t anticipate news during Obama’s nine-day stay in Massachusetts, scheduling no public appearances for him. Obama ended speculation that he might again announce his choice for a Fed chairman during his holiday, telling reporters in an Aug. 9 news conference that he would select Bernanke’s successor in the fall.
The Vineyard is a familiar and sentimental spot for the president, who made his first visit in 2004, shortly after his national debut at that year’s Democratic National Convention. Oak Bluffs, a historically black area on the northern part of the island, includes a vacation home owned by longtime senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
This year, the president, first lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, are renting a $7.6 million, 5,000-square-foot modernist estate with an infinity pool, half basketball court, gym and tennis court, according to a person familiar with the arrangements.
The property, on the island’s south shore, features floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
Obama’s first outing was to the Farm Neck Golf Club, where vacationers lined a road to spot the president in a round of golf with aide Marvin Nicholson, White House chef Sam Kass, and former UBS Americas Chairman Robert Wolf. Wolf, now a Wall Street consultant, has advised the president on financial legislation and raised more than $500,000 for his re-election.
According to a Boston Globe analysis of White House pool reports, Obama has spent a total of 583 hours on the island -- including 56 hours on the links -- not counting this year’s visit.
His low-key style, mostly spending time with family and friends, marks a contrast to the Vineyard’s last presidential vacationer, Bill Clinton, who attended parties hosted by celebrities such as actors Ted Danson and Sylvester Stallone.
Unlike Clinton, who relied on friends and donors to lend him their homes, Obama rents his vacation estate and personally pays a portion of the cost. That makes him different from most recent presidents, according to historians.
John F. Kennedy returned to his family home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, while George H.W. Bush had a compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. Richard Nixon had his “Florida White House” in Key Biscayne and his “Western White House’” in San Clemente, California.
“Where presidents go on vacation says something about where they define their roots -- to the extent that they have them,” said John Kenneth White, a presidential scholar and professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington.
While presidents may want to get away from it all and can check out of the White House, they can never really leave.
Like every modern president, Obama travels with a mini-White House in tow. He receives daily briefings on national security and domestic issues. National Security adviser Susan Rice and deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors are among the aides accompanying him.
Regardless of the place or the president, politics is paramount. In 1995, Clinton passed up his annual trip to the Vineyard for a 17-day vacation in Jackson, Wyoming, after his pollster, Dick Morris, insisted that hiking and camping would help him win swing voters heading into a re-election campaign. Clinton, Morris wrote in his memoir, unhappily went, and spent as much time as possible on the golf course.
Presidential vacations have long been fraught with symbolism. Like Bush, Ronald Reagan valued spending time at his ranch, in Santa Barbara, California, reveling in the rustic, cowboy image of a president chopping wood and riding horses.
The close to 350 days he spent at Rancho del Cielo, known as his Western White House, also contributed to the perception that he was disconnected from the management of his administration, said Doherty, an expert in presidential travel.
“Even if a president can be just as effective on the road, there’s a powerful perception that he needs to be in Washington attending to the duties of his job,” said Doherty.
After Soviet fighter planes shot down a Korean Airlines flight in 1983, killing 269 people, including 62 Americans, Reagan’s deputy chief of staff, Michael Deaver tracked the president down in the tack barn, where he saddled his horses at the ranch, to tell him he needed to head back to Washington.
“Dammit, I’m the president whether I’m in California or the Oval Office,” Reagan replied, Deaver recounted in his book, “A Different Drummer.” “It’s a stupid idea.”
Reagan went anyway, returning to Washington for a speech denouncing the Soviet Union’s aggression.
To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts at
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