When Leaders Take Vacations, Beware

The perils of time off (or failing to take it) when the economy is tanking

Proud, hardworking Americans who disdain the European tradition of taking off le tout August may have indulged in a bit of schadenfreude last week as leaders of the Group of Seven nations were all on vacation as their economies headed off the nearest cliff. That sound you heard was the stampede of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Chancellors for the nearest airport or military base.

A selection of actual headlines and excerpts: “Crises Cloud Summer Holidays for European Leaders”; “Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero rushed back to Madrid Wednesday within hours of beginning his August vacation—after postponing it Tuesday”; “British Prime Minister David Cameron came under fire for staying on a family holiday at a villa in Tuscany. … But he found time to speak by phone on Friday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and on Saturday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who repeatedly had to interrupt his vacation in Cap Nègre on the French Riviera to grapple with the markets.”

In case you’re wondering where Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer was: “George Osborne is also on holiday … at Disneyland.” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg? Spain. But not to worry: “Foreign Secretary William Hague called a crisis meeting Friday, saying he had spoken to Cameron by phone and [was] insisting that the government was still ‘fully functioning.’ ”

Even more reassuring was the news from Rome, where Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi “vowed … to work through August ‘without interruption.’ ” Moreover, “He also denied press reports that he might head for a vacation in the holiday dacha of his friend Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.”

There’s lots more, but let me conclude this tour d’horizon with my favorite item, from a Portuguese newspaper’s website: “In a message published on Facebook before departing for a vacation with his family, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho warned today that the sacrifices demanded of the Portuguese people are not going to be easy.”

Lest Americans laugh too lustily at our feckless Common Market cousins, there was this headline, courtesy of the Drudge Report: “Obama to Lay Out Jobs Plan—After Vacation.” It accompanied a photograph of the President snarfing down an ice cream cone and a bit of streaming video of a florid-faced, outraged Donald Trump telling Greta Van Susteren that the President “takes more vacations than any human being I’ve ever seen.” Warming to his theme, he added: “Well, I mean, it sends a bad message. Here we have a country that really is going to hell in a handbasket. Let’s not kid ourselves. What’s happening to this country is horrible.”

Really, running the country is hard enough without being lectured on vacations by a casino owner with an orange comb-over visible to the naked eye from 250 miles in space. Let’s not kid ourselves.

But the question is raised: Are our leaders entitled to a break every now and then? Or are their jobs 24/7 propositions? Do we want them tanned, rested, and ready, or haggard and hollow-eyed from overwork?

As a Libertarian, I’d be happy if our leaders, including Congress, took 365 days a year off and left us alone. But this modest proposal has drawbacks. When the dreaded call comes in at 3 a.m., we probably need something more than, “You have reached the White House during nonworking hours. If you are calling to report an incoming nuclear missile, please call the Department of Defense. This machine will not take messages.”

Vacations are minefields for world leaders. Last February we learned that British Deputy Prime Minister Clegg had gone on a ski holiday in pricey Davos, while Prime Minister Cameron was abroad on an overseas (business) trip. British tabloids feasted. (One now wonders—did they learn of Clegg’s itinerary by hacking into his phone?) The Deputy PM was reminded, by a noisy House of Commons, that it was his job to run the country in the absence of the Prime Minister. He did not do himself a favor by replying that he had “forgot.” But give him this: Rarely do our own politicians speak with such admirable, if perilous, candor.

Some years ago, French President Sarkozy got himself into hot water with the Socialists when he took his vacance by the cool waters of Lake Winnipesaukee, N.H. There was the usual grumbling about the cost, then the usual defense that the house wasn’t, after all, bankrupting the Fifth Republic, as it had been loaned to M. Sarkozy by a friend. I’m just sorry I missed hearing all the French Socialists on TV and radio pronouncing “Winnipesaukee.”

August, named for a Roman politician who didn’t have to worry about media grousing that he was spending too much time on Capri, is a problematic month for leaders on either side of the Atlantic. For reasons known only to the gods, things tend to go wrong, often very wrong, during this problematic month. Bush 41 got Saddam invading Kuwait; Bush 43 got Katrina. The Mother of All Augusts was surely 1914, when World War 1 erupted. April may not be the cruelest month after all.

But perhaps most interesting is the difference between American and European indignation in the matter of vacationing leaders. When an American President goes on holiday—whether to Martha’s Vineyard, Crawford, Tex., or Vail, Colo.—you can count on the media to analyze its significance on the basis of four criteria: 1) the number of days off the President has taken so far this year, 2) the cost to the taxpayer at a time when many Americans cannot afford to take a vacation at all, 3) whether the President is observed interacting with normal Americans, as opposed to, say, Beyoncé or Bill Gates, and 4) how many phone calls he took from British Prime Minister David Cameron during which the two leaders discussed the relative merits of Tuscany vs. Martha’s Vineyard—oops, rather, the developing situation in the Middle East.

The White House spokesman will duly take to the podium at the end of the day, tie-less, to announce that the President met—no, “conferred”—“several times” with “top advisers” and is “monitoring the situation closely.” He will take pains to point out that “a President is really never off duty,” even if he’s on a golf course or windsurfing with Senator Kerry or doing Jell-O shots at the nearest Hooters with the Chinese vice-premier, who happens to be taking his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.

The subtext to this month’s European grumbling, on the other hand, wasn’t that their leaders went off on vacation while their currencies—along withTottenham—went up in flames. Not at all. Indeed, you could almost detect a note of pride that their leaders weren’t about to give up the ultimate European perk—the August vacation—even with hell breaking out.

No, the unspoken fear seemed to be that this new fiscal order looming over the Continent might, ultimately, imperil everyone’s ability to take that state-sanctioned six-week vacation. That, not Angela Merkel’s hiking in the South Tyrol, or even a Silvio Berlusconi “bunga bunga” party in Sardinia, might be behind the real angst this August.

Meanwhile, enjoy your time on Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. President, and may you return rested and ready to unveil that jobs plan.

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