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A peek into Obama’s weekend at Sunnylands (+video)

President Obama is kicking back this weekend at Sunnylands, the Camp David of the West. It's a place for high-minded problem-solving – then golf and TV. 

By / February 15, 2014


Rancho Mirage, Calif.

This much we know about President Obama’s three-day weekend at Sunnylands, the luxurious 200-acre estate near Palm Springs, Calif., that has become something of a West Coast Camp David: He has played golf with three buddies, and planned to binge on TV.  

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Mr. Obama may well feel he’s earned his three days of R&R. On Friday, he addressed a House Democratic retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, then took Air Force One to Fresno, Calif., for events focused on the state’s severe drought, then headed south to Sunnylands for a working dinner with King Abdullah II of Jordan. By our count, it was a 15-hour day.

King Abdullah didn’t stick around for golf and TV. But Obama has been joined by three high school friends and regular golf companions – Bobby Titcomb, Greg Orme, and Michael Ramos. Sounds like a boys weekend, kind of like the extra time first lady Michelle Obama spent in Hawaii with girlfriends after the holidays. This weekend, Mrs. Obama and their daughters had other plans.

And who can argue with the locale? Back in Washington, it’s in the 30s and it just snowed. Again. Here in Rancho Mirage, it’s partly cloudy and 82 degrees.

The president, of course, never really stops working. On Saturday afternoon, Obama signed the debt ceiling bill and another bill that restores full cost of living benefits for military retirees. National Security Adviser Susan Rice is also at Sunnylands for the weekend, having come for the Abdullah meeting.

Regardless of why one’s here, it is an elegant place to be, set in the desert against a mountain backdrop, and featuring acres of desert gardens, a nine-hole golf course, and world-class art.

The estate was built in the 1960s by philanthropists Walter and Leonore Annenberg, who set up a trust that governs its use, now that they're no longer alive, as a “sanctuary for generations of high-level national and world leaders seeking the privacy, the peace, and ‘the pause’ needed for solving the most pressing national and international issues,” according to the Sunnylands website.

On Friday, Obama said meeting with the king here allowed them to have an extensive consultation “in a less formal setting.” Indeed, the two leaders went without neckties. The king had just spent the previous week having meetings in Washington, but for his meeting with Obama, he got the royal treatment here on the West Coast, complete with red carpet.

Obama’s first Sunnylands summit was last June, when he hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping here for two days of official working meetings.  Obama presented Mr. Xi a California redwood bench as a gift to the people of China, a replica of which sits in the garden at Sunnylands.

Tourists, too, can come here (though not this weekend). Still, when tickets become available, they sell out fast. As this reporter walked around the Sunnylands Center Saturday morning – as part of the traveling press pool, far away from POTUS’s golf game – staff were fielding phone calls from people frustrated that newly available tickets had sold out already.  

The allure isn’t hard to understand. Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Princess Grace all visited. Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to come, followed by President Nixon and all presidents since. Walter Annenberg was a friend of Ronald Reagan long before he became president, and was part of the “kitchen cabinet” that urged him into politics. Leonore Annenberg served as President Reagan’s chief of protocol for two years.

As high-minded as the Annenbergs’ aspirations for their estate were, they also knew the value of kicking back. The residence, where Obama is staying, features a game room where “presidents, actors, and friends enjoyed private film screenings there while indulging in Annenberg signature snacks – jelly beans, potato chips, and pretzels,” the Sunnylands brochure says.

We’re thinking Obama will use that game room for some screenings of his own. Last Thursday, @BarackObama (which is run by the political support group Organizing for Action) tweeted: “Tomorrow @HouseOfCards. No spoilers, please.” We must note that since the tweet was not followed by “-bo”, it was not Obama himself who wrote it.

Still, it has been widely reported that he enjoys edgy series like “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire.” According to The New York Times, Obama approached the head of HBO, Richard Plepler, at the state dinner for the French president last week, and asked for DVDs of the series “True Detective” and “Game of Thrones.” Obama isn’t due back in Washington until Monday night, so he should have time for a few episodes, and more golf. 

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