The Long Tradition of Criticizing Presidential Vacations

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The one thing Hoover didn't do was fish, even though he was an avid angler. In one of two press conferences he held on the deck of the battleship, he told reporters: "I would like to, but I don't believe I can go fishing. It seems very inapropos to catch small fish with a large boat."

His successor was not similarly constrained. For Franklin D. Roosevelt, his vacation ship of choice was the cruiser USS Houston. Four times - in 1934, 1935, 1938 and 1939 - the warship was specially adapted by the shipfitters and metalsmiths to handle the president's wheelchair. In 1934, he went 12,000 miles from Annapolis, Md., to Portland, Ore., by way of Haiti, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Panama Canal, Colombia, and Hawaii. In 1935, he went from San Diego to Charleston, S.C., by a similar route. And the best-remembered trip was in 1938 when he went from San Francisco on a fishing cruise to the Galapagos Islands, during which he presided over an elaborate "King Neptune" ceremony when the ship crossed the equator.

According to naval historian James D. Hornfischer, Roosevelt was beloved by the crew and spent much of that 24-day trip telling jokes and fishing on the ship's motor launch.

Roosevelt's successor also preferred a military venue for his vacations. But the ships were much smaller. Harry Truman took 11 trips to a submarine base in Key West. Alone in the annals of presidential vacations, near-complete logs of his activities there were maintained and today are available at the Truman Library. They divulge details that never would be admitted by today's image-conscious White House aides.

Oddly, on most of these vacations Truman left his wife and daughter back home. Instead, he surrounded himself with military aides, advisers, and reporters - all possible poker partners. The log for every trip shows his first act was to telephone the first lady to report his arrival. Of course, in contrast to the high-tech communications that travel with presidents everywhere, the logs for these trips - by the first commander in chief with nuclear weapons at his disposal -- noted that "except for a direct telephone wire from the Commandant's quarters to the White House, no special communication facilities were installed incident to the visit."

The logs describe the president relaxing, noting he "donned bathing trunks and spent an hour loafing in the warm sun" and "after lunch the president took a long nap." Like Theodore Roosevelt, he also went down in a submarine, touring one captured from the Germans. He also toured a blimp.

In 1948, at a time when he was being battered by Southern Democrats threatening to bolt the party to preserve segregation, he took a long cruise in the presidential yacht, the USS Williamsburg, to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Time magazine noted that even this vacation, though, couldn't get him away from his political woes. His decision to visit the Virgin Islands' Gov. William Hastie - a black man - enraged white supremacists back home in the South.

Truman and all of Obama's predecessors learned the same lesson the president will learn over the next nine days: Vacations cannot stop recessions, end wars, or cure political problems. And on Martha's Vineyard, Obama won't have submarines, yachts, dirigibles, or battleships to help take his mind off them.

Image credit: Reuters

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George E. Condon Jr.

George E. Condon Jr is a staff writer (White House) with National Journal.

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