When Presidents and Others Take a Break

AS Americans pack their bags and head for open roads and crowded airports to begin long-awaited vacations this month, the question hanging in the summer air is: What constitutes an ideal getaway?

For some leisure-seekers, relaxation lies in the unvarying routine of a quiet week at a lake-front cottage, year after predictable year. For others, the act of recharging batteries depends on something more fast-paced and social - a group tour of 10 foreign cities in as many days, perhaps. For still others, the answer changes from year to year, depending on one's mood and the needs of the moment.

Even President Clinton, who tends to prefer public outings such as his family's high-visibility week on Martha's Vineyard last August, is making headlines for spending three quiet weekends in a row at Camp David. After spurning the rustic presidential retreat for 17 months because it was too remote, the president, according to his aides, is now discovering the joys of solitude.

This slower pace puts Mr. Clinton in league with earlier presidents, among them Herbert Hoover, who extolled the virtues of contemplative getaways in a charming 86-page book, ``Fishing for Fun - And to Wash Your Soul,'' published in 1963, a year before his death. This modest volume, a collection of Mr. Hoover's public addresses and magazine articles on fishing, would hardly have prompted bidding wars among publishers. Yet it is as interesting for its views on solitude as it is for its comments from the First Angler on everything from willow poles to salt-water fishing.

``Fishing is not so much getting fish as it is a state of mind and a lure for the human soul into refreshment,'' wrote the 31st president, who apparently never met a rod or a fish he didn't like.

``Fishing is a chance to wash one's soul with pure air,'' he explained. ``It brings meekness and inspiration from the scenery of nature.'' It makes ``a mockery of profits and egos'' and brings ``a rejoicing that you do not have to decide a darned thing until next week.''

Speaking for overworked Americans everywhere, Hoover noted that ``as civilization, cement pavements, office buildings, and radios have overwhelmed us, the need for regeneration has increased.... When all the routines and details and the human bores get on our nerves, we just yearn to go away from here to somewhere else.''

Today that yearning for escape increasingly manifests itself in a desire for high-intensity recreation. ``Work hard, play hard'' has become a mantra of sorts for adventure-seekers demanding active rather than contemplative vacations - everything from white-water rafting to helicopter-skiing and skydiving.

These thrill-producing sports serve as a measure of how leisure activities have grown more sophisticated since the days when hip boots, a rod and reel, and lures constituted the only equipment any fishing enthusiast - even one with the presidential seal on his tackle box - needed.

Even at the White House, where fishing was, according to Hoover, a favored sport during the presidencies of McKinley, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt, recreational activities have changed. Media images of later presidents taking a break have included Eisenhower golfing in Georgia; Kennedy swimming and sailing at Hyannisport, Mass.; Johnson riding horseback on his Texas ranch; Nixon bowling; Ford golfing; Carter playing tennis; and Reagan riding a horse on his California ranch.

George Bush, the first jogging president, also delighted news photographers by zooming along the coastline at Kennebunkport, Maine, in his cigarette boat. Clinton, an avid golfer, may be best known for jogging, usually with a pack of reporters, photographers, and autograph-seekers huffing alongside.

It is a public scene that might have prompted Hoover to reiterate the private pleasures of fishing. Fish, he observed, ``will not bite in the presence of the public, including newspapermen.''

Whatever a vacationer's preferred form of relaxation, what matters is not the specific activity or place but the ability to carve out time, the chance to change gears and ignore all the electronic tethers - cellular phones, laptop computers, fax machines - that threaten to turn a longed-for getaway into the ultimate oxymoron, a working vacation.

Perhaps the final word in defense of time off comes from Hoover, who wrote:

``Life is not comprised entirely of making a living or of arguing about the future or defaming the past. It is the break of the waves in the sun, the contemplation of the eternal flow of the stream, the stretch of forest and mountain in their manifestation of the Maker - it is all these that soothe our troubles, shame our wickedness, and inspire us to esteem our fellow men - especially other fishermen.''

Who would have guessed that Hoover, the mining engineer - the sober epitome of organized efficiency - had this touch of the poet in him? Obviously a president at play can be as startlingly different from his Oval Office self as any other vacationing American off the job. But his words are as good a justification as any for the value and necessity of leisure. For Republican or Democrat, nothing is more purely nonpartisan than a good vacation.

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