The work-life balance for 'nation's CEO'
President Bush spends August on his Texas ranch, but some say his schedule should mirror hard-charging US.
Since the start of his presidency, George W. Bush has taken heat for the perceived ease of his schedule: regular naps, two-hour breaks for exercise, and those long "working vacations" in Texas.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Even former Attorney General John Ashcroft - a serious loyalist - once quipped that the White House was committed to working "24/7 - 24 hours a week, seven months a year."
So as the president enters the home stretch of his five-week respite in Crawford, Texas, an old debate is being renewed: What's the proper work-life balance for a president? Is there a disconnect between American workers' ever-longer hours and the precise but compact schedule of the nation's CEO?
Supporters say Bush brings a refreshing degree of proportionality to the many demands on his time. At the White House, he is early to bed, early to rise, and he runs meetings with West Point punctuality - habits in sharp contrast to his often tardy and workaholic predecessor, Bill Clinton.
The president brings the same sensibility to his ranch, renewing mind, body, and spirit with sweaty stints of brush clearing, mountain biking, and fishing - on top of speeches, fundraisers, intelligence briefings, and policy huddles with aides and officials.
"[Bush] reflects ... an exceptionally good work-life balance at the level he's at," says Jim Bird, CEO of WorkLifeBalance.com, a company based in Atlanta. "When I see [Bush] walking around on his ranch, I feel comforted that I'm in better hands than if he wasn't doing that."
Critics, however, charge Bush with setting a bad example. A reported tally of his time in office shows he's spent as much as 20 percent of his days in Crawford. In fact, this Sunday, Bush passed Ronald Reagan for most days spent away from the Oval Office.
"We're the hardest-working people in the world, and we have a president who seems to not only be working bankers' hours, but taking French bankers' vacation," says Rick Shenkman, a presidential historian who wrote "Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power at Any Cost."
But Mr. Shenkman, who rates James Polk as the nation's hardest-working president and Warren Harding as its laziest, cautions that a true picture of Bush's work ethic won't be known until he leaves office. He cites the example of Mr. Reagan who was teased for keeping light office hours, and who once joked: "It's true, hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?" Later, scholars revised their estimate of Reagan's performance, when evidence emerged that he spent many evenings pouring through stacks of papers and digests.
"It's somewhat unfair to accuse a president who generally works very hard ... for taking five weeks off," says Barbara Kellerman, research director at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "It's not as if [Bush is] sitting on a recliner."
Bush himself described a typical day at his Crawford ranch to a group of reporters recently, as reported by The New York Times:
"I'm going to have lunch with Secretary of State Rice, talk a little business; Mrs. Bush, talk a little business ... take a little nap. I'm reading an Elmore Leonard book right now, knock off a little Elmore Leonard this afternoon; go fishing with my man, Barney; a light dinner and head to the ballgame. I get to bed about 9:30 p.m., wake up at 5 a.m. So it's a perfect day."
It seems, however, public tolerance for presidential leisure time is decidedly lower in wartime.
Bush's sagging approval ratings, amid rising gas prices and growing discontent over the Iraq war, are transforming his vacation into a public relations campaign. Wednesday, Bush argues the case for staying the course in Iraq before National Guard troops and families in Idaho.
Virtually all presidents, experts say, have sought downtime to recuperate from the rigors of the office. But their modes of relaxation varied greatly.
Theodore Roosevelt, for example, incorporated fast hikes and boxing into his routine, hardly surprising for the man who promoted the ideals of the "strenuous life" to guard against the emasculating influence of modern civilization.
Lyndon Johnson and Mr. Clinton, meanwhile, were incorrigible political junkies who often blurred the line between the personal and the professional. President Johnson, for instance, sometimes conducted meetings while on the toilet.
"Their days are so rigidly scheduled, they have to find ways to express their individuality, their rebelliousness, their independence," says Shenkman.
As presidential workloads increase, experts say, so does the need for balance. "You need to take time to keep your own physical, mental, spiritual act together, or you are not going to be a good president or leader of anything," says Mr. Bird.