Presidential Rest & Relaxation: Mission Improbable
WASHINGTON — CALVIN COOLIDGE used to wear white kid gloves while fishing. Lyndon Baines Johnson enjoyed goading reporters into chasing pigs. Richard Nixon would spend a beautiful Florida day inside, discussing Laos - then stroll the beach wearing a business suit and tie.
Watch out, America. It's time for another presidential vacation. They're not always a pretty sight.
Sure, Bill Clinton says he's tired and needs a rest. But as a rule, US chief executives make poor vacationers. Think about it: One needs ferocious drive to survive the American electoral process. It's hard to turn that off and sit by the pool at the Sonesta Beach Hotel.
Generations of White House staffers might echo the lament of Nixon chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, from his diary entry of May 15, 1970: "In Key Biscayne. The unwinding process is not succeeding."
Modern presidents tend to fall into two vacation categories. The first is Stiff Guy Who Can't Stop Working (Carter, Nixon, Hoover, Coolidge, etc). The second is Energetic Guy Who Turns Play Into Work (think Bush and his patented game of speed golf, Kennedy and NFL-style touch football).
Then there's Ronald Reagan. Perhaps alone among recent Oval Office occupants, Reagan appeared to know how to enjoy time off. He spent, in total, nearly an entire year of his presidency at his ranch in the Santa Ynez Mountains northwest of Santa Barbara, and by all accounts Laos - or its '80s equivalent - was never mentioned.
Advisor Michael Deaver once tried to get Reagan to spend less time on vacation. "Look Mike, you can tell me to do a lot of things, but you're not going to tell me when to go to the ranch," Reagan replied, according to biographer Lou Cannon.
Whether Mr. Clinton is in Reagan's league when it comes to relaxation is yet to be determined. There are positive signs. When reporters asked his first vacation goal, he said "I'm going to lie down." He has taken a stack of books to read on his two-week stay at Sen. Jay Rockefeller's house near the mountain resort of Jackson Hole.
Remember, however, that this is a man who has long spent his New Year's break at Renaissance Weekends, discussing the fine points of welfare policy. Quick, what's the most likely dinner-table topic this week at the Mountain White House: the O.J. trial or block grants?
"You've got to do it, you've got to let go," insisted Clinton earlier this week.
When Calvin Coolidge let go, to name one Stiff Guy president, things got kind of peculiar. When he fished in the River Brule near his South Dakota vacation home, Secret Service personnel baited his hook. They removed any catch. "The Secret Service men complained bitterly when it fell to their lot to perform this function," writes historian Paul Boller in his book of presidential anecdotes.
Coolidge estimated that the Brule contained 45,000 trout. "I haven't caught them all yet," he once said, "but I've intimidated them."
Golf is another favorite presidential vacation pastime. Clinton is staying a mere sand wedge away from the Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis Club and will surely play numerous rounds. For sheer energy, however, Clinton doesn't match George Bush, whose speedy golf style combined jogging, hitting, and a kind of cart polo.
Nor is Clinton the most enthusiastic of post World War II presidential golfers. That title might properly fall to Dwight Eisenhower, whose penchant was so well-known it spawned political bumper stickers. "Ben Hogan for President," they said, referring to a champion linkster of the era. "If We're Going to Have a Golfer, Let's Have a Good One."
It's hard to begrudge any president at least an attempt at relaxation, though. For one thing, the August weather in Washington brings to mind breathing through a hot, damp washcloth. For another, the White House is surely the world's most well-protected gilded cage.
A large and restless man, LBJ enjoyed cruising around his 400-acre Texas ranch in a white Lincoln Continental, stirring up trouble. At one point, with reporters in tow, he pulled up to a sow and her piglets and said he would pose for photos if any of the scribes could nab one of the babies.
When the reporters attempted this difficult feat, the perturbed sow charged, turning the scene into a Texas version of the running of the bulls at Pamplona. Johnson, delighted, honked his horn, and yelled "Whooee! Whooee!"