President's Retreat: Camp David Is Place to Get Away From It All

Even as details emerge about alleged indiscretions by Clinton, the first couple finds shelter and privacy.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

There's not much a president can do to escape the fish bowl that is the White House - especially when he is being as closely scrutinized as President Clinton is these days.

But as Mr. Clinton and his wife retreated to Camp David over the weekend, they might well have thanked Franklin Delano Roosevelt for establishing this presidential shelter in the gentle mountains of western Maryland.

This most recent Clinton getaway occurred during what could be the most critical period for the president since the Monica Lewinsky matter surfaced in January. First, lawyers for Paula Jones unveiled legal papers that they say document a pattern of sexual indiscretion and cover-up by the president. Their effort to persuade a federal judge to continue Ms. Jones's sexual-harassment suit against Clinton was followed by another revelation: that Kathleen Willey, a former White House worker, would tell her story on CBS's "60 Minutes" Sunday night about an alleged sexual encounter with Clinton.

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For the Clintons, their six visits to Camp David already this year indicate that it has become more of a refuge. And according to aides, the first couple plans to use the site more often during the balance of the president's term.

"The president and first lady find it very relaxing," says Barry Toiv, a White House spokesman. "It's one of the nice things about the empty nest - they are able to go out and use it more."

Thus far, the White House insists the Clintons had been reluctant to travel frequently to Camp David before daughter Chelsea left for Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. But those who know Clinton suggest it was he who was most reluctant to leave the excitement of town for the bucolic isolation 60 miles away.

"In the early days he used it little," says W. Dale Nelson, a retired White House correspondent and author of "The President is at Camp David," pointing out Clinton is currently near the bottom of the list of frequent fliers. Logging 571 visits, Ronald Reagan is at the top.

Despite its exclusive use for presidential R&R, Camp David (renamed from Shangri-La by Dwight Eisenhower for his grandson) has played a key role in official business and shaping world events with foreign heads of state. The venue was the site for the signing of the Camp David peace accord in 1978 between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev was the guest of President Eisenhower. FDR hosted Winston Churchill. More recently, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the guest of the Clintons.

"As a guest there you are living a moment in history," says Letitia Baldridge, Jacqueline Kennedy's social secretary during the Kennedy years.

John F. Kennedy, like some of his predecessors, was slow to warm to the place. His visits were rare early in his administration, but he came to use it frequently toward the end. "After the Cuba missile crisis he decided he needed it more often," says Ms. Baldridge.

President Richard Nixon and his family would sometimes travel there twice a week seeking quiet, particularly at the end of his administration.

Today, the handful of White House staff that accompany Clinton are not complaining about the new habit. Aides say the short helicopter ride out over fields and horse farms reminds the Clintons of similarly rural Arkansas.

Their time at Camp David is usually spent reading or golfing on the three-hole course Eisenhower installed in the 1950s.

President Carter fly-fished nearby streams. Harry Truman, an avid walker, paced his way around the grounds. A few presidents have shot skeet.

Formerly a boy's camp, the site was was investigated by Roosevelt in the spring of 1942, and construction of the main lodge began a few years later. During those early days Secret Service agents slept in tents, and had only cold water and outhouses.

Today the complex has been modernized and include amenities like a projection facility for movies. Nevertheless, it still has a "rustic" feel, according to Nancy Reagan.

"It isn't like those presidential palaces in Iraq, but it's not just two shacks out in the woods," says Mr. Nelson.

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