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.