President Obama leaves for his annual Hawaiian Christmas vacation at a tricky moment in his presidency. His party got pummeled at the polls in November, but December brought a surprisingly successful lame-duck session of Congress. He could certainly use a break.
Obama plans to use his respite in his native Hawaii to relax and spend time with his wife and daughters. If it's like last year, he'll hit the beach. And he'll join a long line of presidents who have also used their holidays to rejuvenate – and even send a political message to voters. Like the Oval Office or the Air Force One, the presidential vacation is one of the tools in the kit.
No one was lower or more fatigued than Jimmy Carter when his aides persuaded him to take a few days off to go fishing at the midpoint of his term in 1978. And the payoff was obvious when the president’s boat returned to the dock with Carter beaming and reporting that he had hauled in more fish than he could ever remember.
What aides didn’t tell the rejuvenated chief executive was that they had ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to overstock the lake to guarantee that big haul. Carter never found out, and one member of the president’s advance team, interviewed this week, said that even more than three decades later, “no one is going to confirm that on the record.” But he said the overstocking did what it was supposed to do – ease the burden on the president.
Just as Carter boasted about his fishing prowess that day, bragging rights seem to be an important element of presidential vacations, even though presidents tend to get a lot of help in claiming those boasts.
For Calvin Coolidge, it was up to friends to make sure he had something to brag about after his fishing trip. In 1928, Coolidge came up empty on a trip to the Fire Hole in Yellowstone National Park. Worried about how this failure would look, park rangers and a guide took someone else's fish and moved them into the president’s creel. When reporters asked Coolidge how he had done, he responded “I have always heard that they judge a fisherman’s success by the contents of his creel,” and held aloft the overflowing basket, never mentioning that he had not caught any of the fish.
Six years later, Franklin D. Roosevelt was horrified when his son Elliott told the press, “Pa’s luck was not so good,” and owned that the president had caught no fish. FDR quickly summoned reporters and convened what he called an “investigating committee.” He accused Elliott of “gross libel” and ordered him off the yacht.
Other presidents have found competitors and aides willing to concede putts, grant mulligans, ignore fouls, and cede rebounds, making sure that the boss won bragging rights in golf, biking, or basketball. “It’s amazing,’ said George H.W. Bush after he left office, “how many people beat you at golf now that you’re no longer president.”
Stroking the ego has been a critical component of presidential vacations since the founding of the Republic. So has criticism of those vacations by political opponents. Foes asked if John Adams had abdicated when he spent seven months of 1798 at his Massachusetts farm. Similar questions were raised when James Madison took June to October off in 1816.
"Washington spent time away. Adams spent time away. Things were less intense in those days,” said George C. Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “But from the very beginning, presidents have spent time away from the office.”
The only president to warn against vacations was James K. Polk who said, “No president who performs his duties faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure.” In four years, he left Washington for overnight stays only four times. But even Polk wavered. In 1848, he took a vacation to the Virginia shore, writing in his diary, “My long confinement to my office has considerably enfeebled me and rendered some recreation necessary.”
No one criticized Polk for taking a few days off. But, as John Kenneth White, a presidential expert at Catholic University, observed, “We’ve had criticism of presidents all along.”
At least twice, pollsters have warned presidents about their vacations. As president-elect, Ronald Reagan was cautioned in a paper called the Initial Actions Project not to vacation in California in his first few months – to ensure that he would be seen as focused on the nation's economic problems. After pollster Dick Morris partly blamed Bill Clinton’s vacations on Martha’s Vineyard for the Democrats' midterm losses in 1994, he polled the public about what type of presidential vacation they would like. Finding that camping was popular, he urged Clinton to take the hint. The result was vacations in 1995 and 1996 at Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Despite the pollsters' fears, no evidence shows that the public has ever punished a president for taking a vacation.
“Americans have a more sophisticated view,” White said. “They understand the presidency is a 24/7 job and the work follows the president wherever he goes. And there is something to be said for a president returning home, having the batteries charged; getting out of Washington, and spending time with their roots.”
He added, “At the end of the day, presidents are evaluated not by how much time they spent on vacation but by what was the outcome of their policies.”’
A vacation can say a lot about a president, however. “Reagan chopping brush, Bush at his ranch, Bush Senior in Maine. Kennedy on the sailboat and playing touch football. It all gives a window into the persona,” White said.
More challenging is reading the vacations of presidents who don’t have personal wealth and vacation homes. Harry Truman stayed at a military base in Key West, Fla.; Clinton enjoyed the hospitality of friends; Richard Nixon was the guest of a wealthy supporter, Bebe Rebozo.
One of the more famous pictures to come out of a presidential vacation was the shot of Nixon walking along the surf in wingtip shoes. “That photo revealed something that the public already sensed about Nixon – his uncomfortableness and the contrivance of it,” White said. “That became something of an iconic image.”
Now, thanks to the National Archives' latest release of Nixon documents, no one has to rely on deciphering such photos to get a glimpse of Nixon’s somewhat-pinched view of vacations.
Because a journalist had asked him some questions about “my personal habits,” Nixon typed out a four-page memo to his secretary, Rose Mary Woods, about his approach to everything from breakfast to exercise to naps to vacations.
“I would not go so far as Polk,” Nixon wrote. “A president owes it to the country to take some time off for leisure so that he can be fresh for the great responsibilities of his job.” But he noted that he did not want to overdo it. “Taking off any more than three days brings me past the point of enjoyment. I begin to be too concerned about being away from the job and am anxious to get back to it.”
To that end, Nixon said, he preferred a swim, a walk on the beach, or bowling, because all could be done quickly. “Bowling for an hour may not give me as much pleasure as four to five hours on the golf course might give me, but I have no feeling of short-changing my greater responsibilities when I limit my periods of exercise or relaxation in this way.”
So, golf, a sport he loved, was out as too time-consuming. “I do not enjoy it whenever I believe that it is taking me away from the mountain of work I have on my desk.”
That is not a concern for Obama, who is on pace to shatter the records of all the recent golf-playing presidents. According to data meticulously maintained by Mark Knoller of CBS News, Obama has already played twice as much golf in his White House tenure as George W. Bush did in his eight years.
Obama has played 54 rounds of golf so far, compared with Bush's 15 rounds at a similar point in his presidency, and 24 total rounds in his two terms. Both men played far less golf than did Dwight Eisenhower, who by some estimates may have played 800 rounds on the links.
But Obama has vacationed much less than Bush did. The current president has taken nine vacation trips, adding up to all or part of 49 days. At the same point in his presidency, Bush had taken 18 vacations, totaling all or part of 130 days.
For Obama, the presidential vacation is also a homecoming. He grew up in Honolulu, discovered his African-American identity on its basketball courts, and got a boost to the Ivy League at the island's top prep school. His mother and the grandparents who raised him in the 50th state are gone now. But he has many friends there and has a deep attachment to the Aloha State. His half-sister lives there, and the state's incoming governor, Democrat Neil Abercrombie, was a friend of Obama's parents.
In this sense, Obama is unique: Other presidents may have vacationed at such family estates as Walker's Point in Maine for the Bushes or Hyannis Port for the Kennedys. But Obama was born in paradise (no matter what the birthers say), and it's probably not a surprise that he'd want to relax there, too.