For Obama, Bush, Reagan, no vacation from politics
President Obama doesn’t have his own ranch or summer compound as a vacation retreat, so he stays in rental properties, which seem high-end. Obama has also spent much less time on vacation than his predecessor. In truth, presidents don't get a real break from their job – or from politics.
When William Howard Taft was president in the early 1900s, a cartoon showed a senator stuffing a bill into the mouth of a GOP elephant while a happily unaware Taft played golf. Mr. Dooley, the imaginary Irish-American bartender created by cartoonist Finley Peter Dunne, quoted Taft as saying, “Golf is th’ thing I like best next to leavin’ Washington.”Skip to next paragraph
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Taft actually combined these passions, taking frequent golf vacations out of town, as Paul F. Boller, Jr. recounts in his book "Presidential Diversions: Presidents at Play from George Washington to George W. Bush." Taft's trips sparked mirth in the national press, which reported that the famously corpulent president could not bend over to tee up his own ball. But they also drew accusations that Taft was neglecting his official duties, and for a rich man’s sport at that.
And so began our annual summer ritual: Rate the President’s Vacations. The temperature goes up, the news cycle slows down, and partisans bicker over how the Leader of the Free World is spending his free time.
Witness Republican attacks on President Obama, whose recent trip to Africa with the first family – which combined work with play – cost taxpayers between $60 million and $100 million. Mr. Obama also drew fire earlier this year for his three-day golf excursion at an exclusive club in Florida, where he played a round with Tiger Woods. The Obamas will reportedly return in August to the famously tony Martha’s Vineyard, generating untold millions in security and staffing expenses.
Never mind that presidents cover all their personal costs – food, accommodations, and so on – when they’re on family vacations. The Obamas’ real sin is traveling to fancy places like the Vineyard, where they stayed at a $50,000-per-week beachfront property in 2011. Americans want to imagine that our presidents are just like them, in recreation and everything else.
Only, they’re not. For most of US history, America’s chief executives have come from the upper-middle or wealthiest classes of society. And the richer these presidents are, ironically, the more humble their holidays may appear. That’s because they owned big vacation properties, where they could engage in regular-guy recreation. By contrast, presidents of more humble beginnings – like Obama or Bill Clinton – have both rented at ritzy locales like Martha’s Vineyard.
Theodore Roosevelt spent his presidential vacations hunting bear in Mississippi, wolves in Oklahoma, and mountain lions in Colorado. He camped for two weeks in Yellowstone National Park with naturalist John Burroughs, who wrote that Roosevelt could “stand calm and unflinching in the path of a charging grizzly” just as he stood up to “corporations and money powers” back in Washington. But Teddy was no ordinary rugged outdoorsman. He was the scion of a famously affluent New York family.
His distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who lost the use of his legs to polio, spent holidays in Warm Springs, Georgia, at a health resort. He liked the health resort so much that he bought it, and later converted it into a rehabilitation center for the physically disabled.
Presidential vacations didn’t become particularly controversial until the economic downturn of the 1970s. When Gerald R. Ford took his family on a ski vacation in Vail, Colorado – where he owned a condominium – he pointedly brought work with him, lest he be seen “shussing downhill while the nation’s economy was slipping in the same direction,” as one editorialist put it.