When William Howard Taft was president in the early 1900s, a cartoon showed a senator stuffing a bill into the mouth of a GOP elephant while a happily unaware Taft played golf. Mr. Dooley, the imaginary Irish-American bartender created by cartoonist Finley Peter Dunne, quoted Taft as saying, “Golf is th’ thing I like best next to leavin’ Washington.”
Taft actually combined these passions, taking frequent golf vacations out of town, as Paul F. Boller, Jr. recounts in his book "Presidential Diversions: Presidents at Play from George Washington to George W. Bush." Taft's trips sparked mirth in the national press, which reported that the famously corpulent president could not bend over to tee up his own ball. But they also drew accusations that Taft was neglecting his official duties, and for a rich man’s sport at that.
And so began our annual summer ritual: Rate the President’s Vacations. The temperature goes up, the news cycle slows down, and partisans bicker over how the Leader of the Free World is spending his free time.
Witness Republican attacks on President Obama, whose recent trip to Africa with the first family – which combined work with play – cost taxpayers between $60 million and $100 million. Mr. Obama also drew fire earlier this year for his three-day golf excursion at an exclusive club in Florida, where he played a round with Tiger Woods. The Obamas will reportedly return in August to the famously tony Martha’s Vineyard, generating untold millions in security and staffing expenses.
Never mind that presidents cover all their personal costs – food, accommodations, and so on – when they’re on family vacations. The Obamas’ real sin is traveling to fancy places like the Vineyard, where they stayed at a $50,000-per-week beachfront property in 2011. Americans want to imagine that our presidents are just like them, in recreation and everything else.
Only, they’re not. For most of US history, America’s chief executives have come from the upper-middle or wealthiest classes of society. And the richer these presidents are, ironically, the more humble their holidays may appear. That’s because they owned big vacation properties, where they could engage in regular-guy recreation. By contrast, presidents of more humble beginnings – like Obama or Bill Clinton – have both rented at ritzy locales like Martha’s Vineyard.
Theodore Roosevelt spent his presidential vacations hunting bear in Mississippi, wolves in Oklahoma, and mountain lions in Colorado. He camped for two weeks in Yellowstone National Park with naturalist John Burroughs, who wrote that Roosevelt could “stand calm and unflinching in the path of a charging grizzly” just as he stood up to “corporations and money powers” back in Washington. But Teddy was no ordinary rugged outdoorsman. He was the scion of a famously affluent New York family.
His distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who lost the use of his legs to polio, spent holidays in Warm Springs, Georgia, at a health resort. He liked the health resort so much that he bought it, and later converted it into a rehabilitation center for the physically disabled.
Presidential vacations didn’t become particularly controversial until the economic downturn of the 1970s. When Gerald R. Ford took his family on a ski vacation in Vail, Colorado – where he owned a condominium – he pointedly brought work with him, lest he be seen “shussing downhill while the nation’s economy was slipping in the same direction,” as one editorialist put it.
Since then, most of our presidents have owned large properties where they can afford to engage in what often appear to be largely plebian pursuits. A millionaire peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter returned to his family homestead during holidays to hunt quail.
Ronald Reagan spent 484 days of his two-term presidency – almost a year and a half – at Rancho del Cielo, his 688-acre ranch in California. Worrying that Reagan was spending too much time there, and avoiding his presidential responsibilities, his aides called it “Rancho del Lazio.” (In Spanish, “lazio” means lazy.)
George H.W. Bush spent even longer – 543 days – in just four years at his family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he frequently engaged in one-day sports “quintathalons:” a two-mile jog, two sets of tennis, a speedboat ride, 18 holes of golf, and a fishing expedition. When the first Gulf War began, Mr. Bush was blasted for golfing and boating while American troops were fighting in the Middle East.
Perhaps wary of incurring the same criticism as his father, George W. Bush gave up golf after the Iraq War started in 2003. “I just think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal,” Mr. Bush said.
Instead, he spent 490 days at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he donned cowboy boots and cleared brush. In 2005, he stayed at the ranch for a five-week stretch – the longest holiday for any president in 36 years. “He’s in it for the long haul,” joked comedian Jay Leno. “Not Iraq – his five-week vacation.”
That brings us up to President Obama, who wasn’t born into the same kind of privilege as most of his predecessors. He doesn’t have a summer home, ranch, or family compound, so he has to stay in rental properties, which will always seem ridiculously high-end to the average American vacationer. The only other recent president in Obama’s wealth range was Mr. Clinton, who also enjoyed holidays at Martha’s Vineyard.
And Obama is no slouch, despite what some of his critics have claimed. In his first term, Obama spent 72 days at vacation spots around the world and 54 days at Camp David, the presidential retreat in western Maryland. Contrast that to George W. Bush, who spent a nearly identical number of days at Camp David – 487 – as he did at his Crawford ranch. That was over two terms, of course, but it still means that he spent a much larger fraction of his presidency on vacation than Obama has.
But maybe that's not the point. “Presidents don’t get vacations – they just get a change of scenery,” former First Lady Nancy Reagan once quipped, noting how much official work her husband did at their ranch. When you have the country’s top job, in other words, you don’t have a real break from it. Or from politics.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and taught this summer at NYU's study-abroad site in Accra, Ghana. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).