As Americans return to work and school after the Labor Day holiday, they will be regaling each other with stories about what they did on their summer vacations.
For the second year running, President Clinton spent his August holiday in Jackson Hole, Wyo. The first year, some of us reacted a little cynically, thinking it was a political gesture intended to shore up support in the West. Now we have to conclude that Mr. Clinton and his family returned to Wyoming for a relatively nonpolitical vacation because they really like it there.
Western Wyoming is nothing like Arkansas or Washington. The president and his family seem captivated by the undisturbed natural beauty of Yellowstone National Park and the grandeur of the Teton range, which forms the spectacular backdrop for the little town of Jackson. (Jackson is the town; Jackson Hole is the name of the exquisite mountain valley in which it rests.)
By coincidence, both last year and this, my family was on vacation in Jackson Hole at the same time as the president's. We were able, from a distance, to keep an eye on the first family, to see what they were up to. It wasn't much, and we think that's great. Presidents, like the rest of us - perhaps more than the rest of us - need to relax, to get out of Washington, to take time off.
Other presidents have had their retreats. Richard Nixon had San Clemente, Ronald Reagan his California ranch, and George Bush Kennebunkport. Yet their spokesmen felt obliged to come out and assure the waiting press that their presidents were on "working vacations." There were always staged photo sessions and often briefings from cabinet ministers or even foreign presidents.
Yet it ought to be acceptable for a president to say: "I'm on vacation," and handle nothing but a major crisis.
During my spell in Washington working in government, it seemed to me that the long hours some people worked were more for appearances than because the business of government required it. Probably all of government would function more effectively if officials worked vigorously during the day, spent evenings with their families, and took reasonable vacations.
Jackson Hole is the kind of place where a president can do pretty much what he wants and nobody is going to fault him for it. Former Secretary of State Jim Baker has a ranch here, and actors such as Harrison Ford maintain homes. The locals, however, are unaffected by celebrities. When a member of the Kennedy clan tried to crash the waiting line at Bubba's, famous for its barbecued ribs, the hostess said, "Go to the end of the line." The line-crasher reputedly replied: "The Kennedys don't wait in lines." The hostess said: "Then the Kennedys don't eat at Bubba's."
Undoubtedly, tourism has arrived. Japanese visitors throng the stores seeking cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and cowboy belts, and have their pictures taken against the arches of elk horns in Jackson's town square. But there are real cowboys around, and despite soaring land prices, real ranching does go on. On the sage-covered ranch our vacation home overlooks, a neighbor fattens more than 3,000 cattle between spring and fall.
So the Clintons were left pretty much alone. The president read a mystery novel one day and played some golf on others. The family came into town to eat at the Mountain High Pizza Pie one night, then hit "A Time to Kill" at the local movie house. They went hiking and horseback riding, watched moose chomping, and took a whitewater raft trip down the Snake River. They went to church at the Chapel of Transfiguration, whose pastor also plays ragtime piano some nights at the Silver Dollar Bar.
I don't know whom a president shares his vacation movies with - perhaps just other presidents. But they all ought to counsel incumbent and incoming presidents to take a break from time to time. It would probably be good for the country.
*John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and is director of the International Media Studies program at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.