Presidential Vacations: Cheapest & Most Lavish

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Could Obama have gone to his home in Chicago, rather than to Martha's Vineyard? Sure, says Goodwin. But "it's not so easy to relax in Chicago," and his presence there would have "torn up traffic" for everybody else.

She defends Martha's Vineyard for being a place with which the Obamas already are familiar, having vacationed there before. Because the president already knows the place, she thinks, he'll get more and better rest: "There's nothing like going back to a place you know. You already know where to get the ice cream. You settle in easier."

So real are those advantages, she thinks, "it's worth taking a hit" politically for staying on a la-dee-da isle named Martha that's peopled by trust-funders, celebrities (Larry David, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen) and Harvard professors pedaling three-wheeled cycles.

The public, says Walsh, has historically felt sympathy for a president's need to get away. "But where a president gets into trouble is if it looks like he's indulging himself at a time when the country is suffering." The public doesn't begrudge Obama a vacation, thinks Walsh. It begrudges him going to "an exclusive resort" at a time of widespread fear and want. "It's where he's going that's the problem this time."

Presidents who, for reasons of political expediency, chose a folksier destination, run a different risk: they can come off looking cynical and insincere. That's what happened, says Walsh, to Bill Clinton: Clinton, like Obama, caught flack in his first term for hanging out on Martha's Vineyard. So, when he was up for re-election, swami Dick Morris urged him to pick someplace more middle-brow and modest. Clinton went camping in Wyoming. The public wasn't fooled, and Clinton, next vacation, made a beeline back to Martha's Vineyard.

Which presidents have been the thriftiest vacationers?

Truman would be in the running. He stayed in Florida at next-to-no expense by commandeering a duplex that had been built for the commandant of Key West's naval base. Lincoln, too, spent little, staying in the superintendent's cottage at an old soldiers' home a three-mile carriage ride from the White House. The biggest cost, probably, was the cavalry that rode along to guard.

The Lincoln family liked the cooling breezes at the cottage. There was entertainment: When a pet peacock belonging to Tad Lincoln, the president's 9-year old son, escaped, Tad and his father climbed a tree to retrieve it. In the early evening, father and son played checkers on the porch.

If the Obamas had a sudden change of heart and wanted to vacation at the cottage, could they?

"We'd love to see them anytime," says Erin Carlson Mast, director of the property. The cottage today is an historic site, left exactly as the Lincolns knew it. "The Obamas would be more than welcome."

Though it costs $7,500 a day to rent, Mast says the fee could be waived for the Obamas.

There are four bedrooms, so Sasha and Melia could each have their own. Travel time by car from the White House is the same as what it was by horse in Lincoln's day--about 35 minutes. There's even a spot on the lawn where Marine One could land.

Though cheap, it's not perfect. There's no basket ball court. (What a center Lincoln would have made!) Nor are there any bathtubs or showers.

"They could take sponge baths," suggests Mast brightly. "It would all be very conservation-minded."

Is there a place to swim?

"There are duck ponds," says Mast, hesitating.

Would these be deep enough for the president to swim in?

"I wouldn't even want to know," she says, audibly wrinkling her nose. "They're full of...full of....ducks."

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