Bush at rest: a tableau of work and play
On a 'working vacation' in Texas, he will clear brush and attend many fundraisers.
WASHINGTON — During the month of August, President Bush will travel to six fundraisers for his reelection campaign, attend another for Sen. Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri, and visit seven states to promote his message on the economy and the environment.
This week, he will play host to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and next week, an economic mini-summit. Intermingled with these images of presidential action will be the requisite shots of vigorous relaxation - clearing brush, fishing, taking long walks.
As Bush begins his annual month-long summer break at his 1,583-acre ranch near Crawford, Texas, he and his aides have made clear he will once again engage in that oxymoronic American artform called the "working vacation."
"I don't think the president of the United States ever gets a break," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said last week. But, he hastened to add, the August vacation "has always been an opportunity for him to ... spend some time at home."
In the modern era, American presidents in August have sought to thread the needle between appearing consumed by work and seeming too relaxed, all in a location and style that enhances both their authority and their "everyman" qualities.
Sometimes they don't get it right. In August of 1990, the first President Bush caught heat for taking time off from planning the first Gulf War to go fishing. President Clinton, who had no fixed spot, once had a focus group help him decide where to go. (Martha's Vineyard got a thumbs down: too elitist. Horseback riding in Wyoming played well.)
"That's always a balancing act for presidents," says Mark Rozell, a political observer at Catholic University. "Jimmy Carter was ultimately criticized for not taking enough time off and relaxing.... Ronald Reagan had an image of working 9 to 5, taking long naps and long vacations at his ranch."
From those experiences, many political observers have concluded that it looks better if presidents, like all Americans, take time to relax. But since 9/11 and the launch of the war on terrorism, the nation faces a more urgent, sustained challenge than it did under other recent presidents. The current President Bush's team seems acutely aware that striking the right balance of work and play has never been more important.
Bush's team has also made clear that much of his Washington routine has traveled with him to Crawford. He still gets his daily national-security briefing, and meetings with top advisers - such as Vice President Cheney, who has decamped to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for the month - can take place by secure videoconference.
Aside from the dicey security situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where 170,000 US troops are deployed, Bush also faces decisions over Liberia and North Korea. On the homefront, Americans are still digesting the most specific reported threat to homeland security since 9/11, with word that Al Qaeda is planning more suicide hijackings of commercial aircraft from East Coast cities.
On Sunday, an audiotape allegedly from Al Qaeda's No. 2 official, Ayman al-Zawahiri, warned the US against harming detainees at its base in Guantanamo, Cuba. Two top Bush deputies in the war on terrorism, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Attorney General John Ashcroft, did the heavy lifting in addressing those threats in Sunday television appearances.
Secretary Ashcroft said he believes air travel remains safe, noting he and his family would fly on a commercial airliner this month.
For Bush, the unspoken assumption is that he would return to Washington in the event of a major loss of American life. As much as he is capable, through modern technology, of performing all his presidential duties from Crawford, the symbolic significance of the Oval Office as the center of American authority remains unchanged.
"There are potential minefields," says Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University. "Suppose that tomorrow there is a massive loss of American troops, comparable to the Marine barracks (bombing in Beirut in 1983). If he stayed down in Texas and tried to run it from there, it would seem bad."
Short of a major news event, Bush will probably avoid what spokesman McClellan calls "the bubble of Washington" this month. Instead, it's "a time when he likes to get out into the heartland for an extended period of time and talk with American people." Bush will also highlight any positive economic news he can get his hands on. Monday , the Commerce Department reported that in June, demand for US manufactured goods showed its biggest gain in three months.
"This has turned into a bully-pulpit presidency," says Professor Greenstein. "This president pushes his advantages."