President Obama is catching flak for doing something tens of millions of Americans do every summer: going on vacation. His destination, the money he'll be spending, how long he'll be gone, the timing of his trip--all have come in for scrutiny. How does his Martha's Vineyard jaunt compare to the holidays of other presidents?
He will spend about $50,000 a week to rent a beach house, local realtors estimate. The cost of schlepping staff and Secret Service agents around might run into the millions. Did Truman spend more?
Obama will be gone 11 days. Did Nixon linger longer at the beach with Bebe Rebozo (wearing wing-tips and black socks)?
Have we ever had a president who said, in time of crisis, "You know, I think I'll just stay home"?
No, we haven't.
In the Great Depression and even during WWII, Franklin Roosevelt found time to exit Washington for rest and relaxation. "He would slip out and go fishing for extensive periods of time, accompanied by a Navy cruiser," says historian Kenneth Walsh, author of "From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the presidents and Their Retreats." "He really needed his time off."
Lincoln, during the Civil War, spent one-fourth of his presidency absent from the White House and recuperating. George W. Bush, when Hurricane Katrina first hit New Orleans, did not leave his Crawford, Texas, ranch.
Teddy Roosevelt--facing no crisis other than his need to discharge ammunition--disappeared from Washington for five weeks in the spring of 1905 to go bear hunting in Montana, leaving behind Secretary of War William Howard Taft to run the country, communicating now and then with Taft by telegram. Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin says such an abdication, purely for reasons of sport, "would be incomprehensible today."
The undisputed champ of time-off, however, is John Quincy Adams, who spent eight consecutive months away from Washington. It wasn't all vacation: Adams' wife was ill and needed to be cared for. Still, says Walsh, "part that was vacation--getting away from the routine and tedium of his job. He certainly wanted to do that as often as he could." He stayed at his home in Quincy, Mass.
Goodwin draws a distinction between presidents who spend time at home or at their family compound (FDR, JFK or the Bushes, say) and others who, being of more modest means (Lincoln, Truman or Obama) must rent or commandeer a place.
"When a president has a home to go to," Goodwin says, "there's less fuss made about it. FDR loved Hyde Park. He took the train up from Washington almost every other weekend. He said it was what kept him going--returning to the place he'd known as a child. Often, when he got there, he 'd sleep 24 hours straight, especially if Churchill had kept him up the night before, drinking and smoking."
You'd think vacations spent at home would cost taxpayers less; but it's not necessarily the case. Richard Nixon had homes-away-from-home in Florida and California. When each served as a temporary White House, permanent improvements were made at public expense ran into millions. Touches like a floating helipad add up.
"On the surface," says Goodwin, "it seems like President Obama is spending a fortune on a fancy place." But compared to what it costs to create The Northern White House or the Western or the Southern, "it's proportionally less."