President Barack Obama’s ongoing vacation on Martha’s Vineyard has prompted the usual discussions about when and if a president should take time off the clock, as well as where he should go for some down time.
Those questions are as old as the presidency itself, as author Lawrence L. Knutson reminds readers in “Away from the White House,” a gorgeous new coffee-table book published by the nonprofit White House Historical Association. With 440 pages that include more than 500 photographs, the $39.95 hardcover can be purchased from the association’s gift shops and website at Shop.WhiteHouseHistory.org.
Knutson, a retired AP reporter, covered every presidential administration from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush. But his historical survey examines the vacation habits of all of the presidents, including George Washington, who set a precedent on presidential retreats by periodically leaving the temporary presidential home in Philadelphia for visits to his beloved Mount Vernon.
“Americans have been trying to get away from it all for more than two hundred years, and never quite succeeding,” Knutson tells readers. “The job and its responsibilities follow no matter where they are. But whether they escape to a golf course or a trout stream, a sailboat or a ski slope, vacationing presidents find time away from the White House can clear the mind, rest the body, restore energy and perhaps add a touch of humanity to a politician’s image.”
In the early days of the presidency, chief executives also left the White House to escape the heat. During the last three summers of his presidency, Abraham Lincoln traveled to the Soldiers Home, a mere three miles from the White House, to catch a cool breeze. Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought rest in several places, including a Maryland retreat called “Shangri-La.” When Dwight David Eisenhower gained access to that idyllic getaway, he found the name “was just a little too fancy for a Kansas farm boy.” He had the place renamed after his father and grandson: Camp David.
Eisenhower embraced helicopters as an easy way to get to his Gettysburg farm – and a few rounds on the golf course. That prompted snickers about the use of choppers for Ike’s leisure, criticism that irked the commander-in-chief.
Debate about presidential getaways doesn’t seem likely to go away anytime soon. In the meantime, with its lavish illustrations and lively anecdotes, “Away from the White House” is an indulgent getaway of its own.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”