It's vacation time for President Obama. So cue the critics and listen to the echoes of history in their complaints. You'll hear that this vacation is too long. Or too lavish. Or too insensitive. Or too far removed from the struggles of average Americans.
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In the two centuries since John Adams was the first president to seek solace outside Washington and the 109 years since Theodore Roosevelt invented the modern presidential vacation, the critics have always been there to attack. Now, it's Obama’s turn to weather the storm.
From his arrival Thursday on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts until he returns on August 27, Obama will be seen mostly in full relaxation mode, buying ice cream for his daughters, browsing in book stores, riding a bike, and hitting the beach. And with each sighting will almost certainly come lamentations from the critics -- the media, political opponents, nervous supporters -- that he should be back in the White House tending to the nation’s business. Like all his modern predecessors, his aides will defend him, insisting that the business and the trappings of office travel with him.
In contrast to some of those predecessors, though, no one will be able to accuse Obama of using Navy battleships and submarines, Army dirigibles, or Air Force planes to enhance his vacation enjoyment. There was always criticism; but in the past, there were also some vacation perks that went with being commander in chief.
Before July 5, 1902, no president pretended that a vacation trip was anything other than a vacation. When John Adams spent seven months at his Quincy, Mass., farm in 1798, he was accused of abdicating his office and Congress tried to take advantage of his lengthy absence to push for a war with France. The criticism helped undercut his bid for a second term. James Madison celebrated the end of the War of 1812 by staying away from Washington for four months – from June until October 1816. Thomas Jefferson went home from July until October in 1805.
But no president claimed he was on a “working” vacation until that summer day in 1902 when a special presidential train took Theodore Roosevelt to his home in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Later there was to be Harry Truman’s “Little White House” in Key West, Fla., Richard Nixon’s “Florida White House” in Key Biscayne, and George W. Bush’s “Western White House” in Texas. But Roosevelt’s “Summer White House” in Oyster Bay was the first vacation home to carry the White House moniker. And he was the first president to bring staff with him.
It was, declares historian Lawrence L. Knutson and the White House Historical Association, the trip that “forever transformed the nature of the presidential vacation.” Roosevelt brought with him, wrote Knutson, aides, “a platoon of reporters,” and a large number of “stenographers, typists, telegraphers and messengers.” All were stuffed into makeshift quarters they shared with a dentist named Dr. W.C. Root over the Oyster Bay Bank. A newspaper cartoon showed Roosevelt riding off with an uprooted White House and a sign declaring “White House: Gone to Oyster Bay, Back in the Fall.” The critics roared, but The New York Times defended the long vacation, saying it “will be good for him and good for all of us.”
It was on that vacation that Roosevelt coined the term “bully pulpit” and brushed aside concerns about his vacation safety so soon after his predecessor was assassinated. He insisted on ditching the Secret Service, explaining he was carrying a revolver and could protect himself. He also sought his own amusement, at one point going to Long Island Sound where the torpedo submarine USS Plunger was berthed. For 55 minutes, he was the first president ever to be submerged in a sub. For this, The New York Times spanked him for risking his life in “some new-fangled, submersible, collapsible or other dangerous device.”
Twenty-nine years later, Herbert Hoover sought the Navy’s help to give him some respite during the depths of the Depression. Almost on the spur of the moment, the White House announced in March 1931 that “to secure a short rest” Hoover was going to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Somewhat defensively, the announcement noted “this will be the first vacation of the president since assuming office with the exception of a seven-day fishing trip to Florida something more than a year ago.” His mode of transportation was to be the newly modernized battleship Arizona. It's trial run became a luxury cruise for the president.
Time magazine described Hoover as “a very tired man” at the outset of the cruise. But after many “long naps,” exercise on the deck with a medicine ball, and dinners (in formal wear) accompanied by an orchestra, Hoover was rejuvenated. Time described him as “a new man physically ... his cheeks were a pinkish tan (and) lines around his eyes had been smoothed out.” To keep him in touch with the White House, an Army blimp was used daily to shuttle mail from Washington to be dropped in bags on the deck of the Arizona.
The one thing Hoover didn’t do was fish, even though he was an avid angler. In one of two press conferences he held on the deck of the battleship, he told reporters: “I would like to, but I don’t believe I can go fishing. It seems very inapropos to catch small fish with a large boat.”
His successor was not similarly constrained. For Franklin D. Roosevelt, his vacation ship of choice was the cruiser USS Houston. Four times – in 1934, 1935, 1938 and 1939 – the warship was specially adapted by the shipfitters and metalsmiths to handle the president’s wheelchair. In 1934, he went 12,000 miles from Annapolis, Md., to Portland, Ore., by way of Haiti, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Panama Canal, Colombia, and Hawaii. In 1935, he went from San Diego to Charleston, S.C., by a similar route. And the best-remembered trip was in 1938 when he went from San Francisco on a fishing cruise to the Galapagos Islands, during which he presided over an elaborate “King Neptune” ceremony when the ship crossed the equator.
According to naval historian James D. Hornfischer, Roosevelt was beloved by the crew and spent much of that 24-day trip telling jokes and fishing on the ship’s motor launch.
Roosevelt’s successor also preferred a military venue for his vacations. But the ships were much smaller. Harry Truman took 11 trips to a submarine base in Key West. Alone in the annals of presidential vacations, near-complete logs of his activities there were maintained and today are available at the Truman Library. They divulge details that never would be admitted by today’s image-conscious White House aides.
Oddly, on most of these vacations Truman left his wife and daughter back home. Instead, he surrounded himself with military aides, advisers, and reporters – all possible poker partners. The log for every trip shows his first act was to telephone the first lady to report his arrival. Of course, in contrast to the high-tech communications that travel with presidents everywhere, the logs for these trips – by the first commander in chief with nuclear weapons at his disposal -- noted that “except for a direct telephone wire from the Commandant’s quarters to the White House, no special communication facilities were installed incident to the visit.”
The logs describe the president relaxing, noting he “donned bathing trunks and spent an hour loafing in the warm sun” and “after lunch the president took a long nap.” Like Theodore Roosevelt, he also went down in a submarine, touring one captured from the Germans. He also toured a blimp.
In 1948, at a time when he was being battered by Southern Democrats threatening to bolt the party to preserve segregation, he took a long cruise in the presidential yacht, the USS Williamsburg, to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Time magazine noted that even this vacation, though, couldn't get him away from his political woes. His decision to visit the Virgin Islands’ Gov. William Hastie – a black man – enraged white supremacists back home in the South.
Truman and all of Obama’s predecessors learned the same lesson the president will learn over the next nine days: Vacations cannot stop recessions, end wars, or cure political problems. And on Martha’s Vineyard, Obama won’t have submarines, yachts, dirigibles, or battleships to help take his mind off them.