Aug. 19, 2011 -- 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."
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."