Five myths about presidential vacations

  • Article by: SCOTT FARRIS
  • Updated: August 18, 2014 - 11:25 AM

Isn’t that phrase — “presidential vacations” — an oxymoron to begin with?

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President Obama walks back to the golf cart while golfing at Farm Neck Golf Club, in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on the island of Martha’s Vineyard on Aug. 19, 2014. In a rare move for him, the president interrupted his vacation to return to Washington for unspecified meetings with Vice President Joe Biden and other advisers.

Photo: Steven Senne • Associated Press,

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1) Presidents get vacations.

“Presidents don’t get vacations — they just get a change of scenery,” Nancy Reagan once said in defense of her husband’s frequent trips to his ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif.

In the nuclear age, presidents may have only minutes to make a decision that could affect the entire world. They don’t so much leave the White House as they take a miniature version of it with them wherever they go. Some 200 people accompany a president on vacation — including White House aides, Secret Service agents, military advisers, and experts in communications and transportation — to ensure that, while on vacation, the president can do nearly everything he could accomplish in Washington.

He continues to receive daily intelligence and national security briefings while on vacation. Presidents also continue to tape weekly radio broadcasts, hold news conferences, attend political fundraisers and occasionally, as Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan did, entertain British royalty.

Vacations don’t stop presidents from making major decisions. For example, Reagan was enjoying a quiet weekend at Camp David, Md., when he decided to fire striking air-traffic controllers in 1981.

2) Presidential vacations harm the national agenda.

Recently, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank accused Obama of “tone deafness” for going forward with his vacation while the world was in crisis. But when is the world not in crisis?

A vacation can provide a president with that most precious and rare of commodities in the Oval Office: time to relax and think — including time to think about how to deal with a crisis.

Shortly after his re-election to a third term in 1940, Roosevelt was similarly criticized for taking a 10-day fishing trip in the Caribbean while Britain was under assault by Nazi Germany. But FDR used that rare opportunity for reflection to devise his ingenious Lend-Lease program, which would provide vital aid to Britain to stave off the Nazi attack.

Presidents often feel the need to assure Americans that they’re using their vacations productively. Karl Rove, adviser to President George W. Bush, always alerted the media to the scholarly books the president intended to read while on vacation.

It is also unlikely that Obama would have held a news conference on Iraq this past week had he remained in Washington, but he did so while at Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., to refute claims that he was seemingly “detached as the world burns.”

3) George W. Bush took more vacation days than any other president.

During his eight-year presidency, Bush did take 879 days of vacation, including 77 trips to his Texas ranch. So far, Obama has taken about 150 days off. But our founders were away even more.

During his first two years in office, President John Adams was criticized for making two lengthy trips to his home in Quincy, Mass., taking him away from the capital, which was then Philadelphia, for a total of eight months. Adams left Philadelphia to avoid a yellow-fever outbreak and then to care for his ill wife, Abigail. And his absence came at a time when the United States nearly went to war with France.

Even during the Civil War, historian Matthew Pinsker points out, President Abraham Lincoln spent 25 percent of his time, including fully half of 1862, at the Soldiers’ Home near Washington’s Petworth and Park View neighborhoods. Pinsker says Lincoln especially enjoyed going there on hot days because the cottage where he stayed was shaded and the slightly higher elevation picked up cool breezes absent from the White House.

There seems to be no correlation between vacation days and a president’s legacy. No modern president took less vacation than Jimmy Carter (79 days), while Ronald Reagan spent 335 days at his beloved California ranch. President John F. Kennedy spent nearly every weekend of his shortened presidency at one of his family’s several properties. FDR made 134 trips to Hyde Park, N.Y., and spent an additional six months of his presidency in Warm Springs, Ga., where he treated symptoms of his polio. Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage while vacationing at Warm Springs on April 12, 1945.

4) Taxpayers foot the bill for presidential vacations.

Presidents pay for their own and their families’ lodging, food and incidentals while on vacation, which may be why they generally prefer to stay at properties they own, as guests of wealthy friends or at the official presidential retreat at Camp David.

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