Debating the Presidential Vacation

As George W. Bush begins a monthlong vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, he revives one of the oldest traditions in presidential history — the frequency of presidential vacations and the frequency with which presidents are criticized for taking them.

Some of Abraham Lincoln's critics complained that he spent a quarter of his presidency living away from the White House. With his family, Lincoln took up residence during the warmer months at the Old Soldiers' Home.

See where Bush lays down his cowboy hat.

Perched on a hill in northeast Washington, the clapboard cottage was a cool, quiet refuge from the pressures of the Civil War and the hundreds of office-seekers and favor-seekers who loitered outside Lincoln's White House bedroom. (In those days, the president's office was in the family quarters.)

Franklin Roosevelt once said that "all that is within me cries out" to return to his majestic home at Hyde Park on the Hudson. During World War II, he was secretly spirited out of the White House (to avoid assassins) for frequent vacations at "Shangri-La" (later renamed Camp David), Hyde Park, "Hobcaw Barony" — the estate of his friend Bernard Baruch in South Carolina, and the "Little White House" in Warm Springs, Ga., where FDR ultimately died.

Harry Truman took his staff and much of the White House press corps for vacations at a naval installation at Key West, Fla. Ike took long summer vacations at his mother-in-law's house in Denver and a naval station in Newport, and spent most weekends at Camp David (which he had renamed for his grandson) or his house at Gettysburg. JFK rarely spent a weekend in the White House, shuttling among family houses in Hyannis Port, Mass., Palm Beach, Fla., and the Virginia hunt country.

LBJ and Reagan spent large portions of their presidencies on their beloved ranches. Nixon established the "Western White House" at his San Clemente, Calif., estate, spending large sums of public money (later revealed during the Watergate investigations) to build offices and other facilities there for his staff in order to convince the public that he was as intensely on the job as he was in Washington.

Nixon grandly announced that long spells in San Clemente allowed him a more "national perspective on the presidency." George Bush the Elder gravitated to Walker's Point, the family home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

The Presidency as a Movable Feast

The key question in all of this, of course, is whether presidents in retreat from the White House are shortchanging us in their attention to their duties.

There is little evidence of that — especially since White House communications systems and presidential aides follow a president wherever he goes. From Hyde Park, FDR ran some of the most crucial operations in World War II.

There he met Winston Churchill and other leaders in some of the most important summit meetings of the war. From Newport, Eisenhower oversaw the dispatch of federal troops to ensure the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Nixon was at San Clemente when he and Henry Kissinger prepared the opening to China that remains perhaps Nixon's most important achievement as president.

From Kennebunkport, the elder George Bush made the initial decisions that led to Operation Desert Storm. There in 1991 he shaped the American response to the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

More than this, presidential vacations can often be the only way presidents can break out of the artificial "bubble" that surrounds the modern presidency.

When LBJ told his ranch manager to buy itch medicine for an ailing cow or when Reagan and his foreman cleared brush and made fences from telephone poles, they were dealing with old friends they had known for years and reminding themselves where they came from, which made them a bit more human.

There is little historical relationship between the number of hours a president spends in the Oval Office and the quality of his leadership.

If he habitually shirks making tough choices, he will do that in the West Wing or in a vacation house thousands of miles away. Better to have a president who understands the needs of his body and soul than a leader who, terrified of public opinion, chains himself to his White House desk in a desperate effort to show that he is on top of his job.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss is an ABCNEWS contributor and the author of the forthcoming Reaching for Glory: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1964-1965, which will be published by Simon & Schuster in November.