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.
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Since then, most of our presidents have owned large properties where they can afford to engage in what often appear to be largely plebian pursuits. A millionaire peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter returned to his family homestead during holidays to hunt quail.Skip to next paragraph
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Ronald Reagan spent 484 days of his two-term presidency – almost a year and a half – at Rancho del Cielo, his 688-acre ranch in California. Worrying that Reagan was spending too much time there, and avoiding his presidential responsibilities, his aides called it “Rancho del Lazio.” (In Spanish, “lazio” means lazy.)
George H.W. Bush spent even longer – 543 days – in just four years at his family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he frequently engaged in one-day sports “quintathalons:” a two-mile jog, two sets of tennis, a speedboat ride, 18 holes of golf, and a fishing expedition. When the first Gulf War began, Mr. Bush was blasted for golfing and boating while American troops were fighting in the Middle East.
Perhaps wary of incurring the same criticism as his father, George W. Bush gave up golf after the Iraq War started in 2003. “I just think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal,” Mr. Bush said.
Instead, he spent 490 days at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he donned cowboy boots and cleared brush. In 2005, he stayed at the ranch for a five-week stretch – the longest holiday for any president in 36 years. “He’s in it for the long haul,” joked comedian Jay Leno. “Not Iraq – his five-week vacation.”
That brings us up to President Obama, who wasn’t born into the same kind of privilege as most of his predecessors. He doesn’t have a summer home, ranch, or family compound, so he has to stay in rental properties, which will always seem ridiculously high-end to the average American vacationer. The only other recent president in Obama’s wealth range was Mr. Clinton, who also enjoyed holidays at Martha’s Vineyard.
And Obama is no slouch, despite what some of his critics have claimed. In his first term, Obama spent 72 days at vacation spots around the world and 54 days at Camp David, the presidential retreat in western Maryland. Contrast that to George W. Bush, who spent a nearly identical number of days at Camp David – 487 – as he did at his Crawford ranch. That was over two terms, of course, but it still means that he spent a much larger fraction of his presidency on vacation than Obama has.
But maybe that's not the point. “Presidents don’t get vacations – they just get a change of scenery,” former First Lady Nancy Reagan once quipped, noting how much official work her husband did at their ranch. When you have the country’s top job, in other words, you don’t have a real break from it. Or from politics.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and taught this summer at NYU's study-abroad site in Accra, Ghana. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).