Vacations have not been all that relaxing and stress free for this first family. But President Obama is going to try again, leaving Friday for two weeks at his favorite August retreat in Martha's Vineyard. He can only hope that he gets a little more down time than he did during his previous time away from Washington, which came to be known as "the vacation from hell."
No one shares that hope more than his staff, many of whom still shudder at the recollection of all the unforeseen world events and unanticipated weather emergencies that either cut short or interrupted past Obama vacations. Last year, the president went to the tony Massachusetts resort island after ordering air strikes against Islamic terrorists, spent much of his time speaking with Middle Eastern and allied leaders, had to patch up relations with Hillary Clinton after she criticized his foreign policy, and watched riots erupt in Ferguson, Missouri.
That was just the first few days. The worst was still to come the next week when ISIS struck back for his bombing by publicly beheading American hostage James Foley. It was an emotional Obama who condemned the killing shortly after a wrenching phone conversation with his parents. But then — in what he later acknowledged was a major error — he immediately was seen leaving for a round of golf. It was widely panned as a callous and insensitive move.
Members of his staff who are veterans of earlier Obama vacations already are shuddering at what else may happen while he is trying to relax over the next two weeks. They know that last year was not unique. In 2009, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy died while the president was at Martha's Vineyard, and Obama broke away for the funeral in Boston. In 2011, the fighting intensified in Libya, and Tripoli fell during the vacation with the added drama of Western journalists held hostage in a Tripoli hotel. Also that year, Obama had to deal with the earthquake in Virginia. And if that were not enough, he had to cut the vacation short because Hurricane Irene was bearing down on the East Coast.
Looking back on all that, Press Secretary Josh Earnest is philosophical — and hopeful — when asked if the president hopes for a more relaxing vacation this time. "In year seven, he fully realizes that the challenges and strains of the job follow him where he goes," said Earnest. "Hopefully, fewer of those will tag along this year."
But Earnest and Obama understand what earlier presidents knew. "The amazing thing about this job is, the job seems to follow you around," said President George W. Bush while clearing brush at his Crawford, Texas, ranch during a long vacation in August 2002. Bush is the champion vacation-taker among modern presidents, topping Ronald Reagan in second place. According to numbers maintained by Mark Knoller of CBS News, Obama has spent all or part of 160 days on vacation, taking 22 breaks of varying lengths, from 17 days last winter in Hawaii to several out-of-town golf weekends. By comparison, at the same point in his presidency, Bush had made 65 visits to his Texas ranch, spanning all or part of 466 days.
Bush took frequent vacations, believing them important to keeping his perspective. First Lady Nancy Reagan was a little more defensive about her husband spending so much time at his ranch in California. "Presidents don't get vacations," she said. "They just get a change of scenery."
That, of course, is the modern approach to vacations, one that leads image-conscious staff to label vacation homes as the "Western White House" (both Nixon and Bush), the "Texas White House" (Johnson), the "Winter White House" (Nixon at Key Biscayne), and the "Little White House" (Truman at Key West). That never happened before Theodore Roosevelt "invented" the presidential working vacation in 1902.
Before 1902, presidents took lengthy vacations but didn't pretend they were working. John Adams spent seven months at his Quincy farm in 1798, away from Washington, so long that Congress tried to take advantage of his lengthy absence to start a war with France. James Madison celebrated the end of the War of 1812 by staying away from Washington for four months — from June until October 1816. Thomas Jefferson went home from July until October in 1805.
But Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to take staff and reporters with him, the first to call his vacation spot any kind of White House. When he arrived at his home in Oyster Bay, New York, he dubbed it his "Summer White House" and went to work. It was, declared historian Lawrence L. Knutson and the White House Historical Association, the trip that "forever transformed the nature of the presidential vacation." Roosevelt brought with him, wrote Knutson, aides, "a platoon of reporters" and a large number of "stenographers, typists, telegraphers, and messengers." All were stuffed into makeshift quarters they shared with a dentist named Dr. W.C. Root over the Oyster Bay Bank. A newspaper cartoon showed Roosevelt riding off with an uprooted White House and a sign declaring, "White House: Gone to Oyster Bay, Back in the Fall."
Roosevelt relished a continuing work load that other presidents dreaded. No matter how different the scenery, the problems have a way of finding a president. President Herbert Hoover, exhausted by the burdens of office in the depths of the Depression, discovered that when he fled Washington in March 1931. For Hoover, the vacation was made possible by his status as commander-in-chief. The battleship Arizona had just undergone a major modernization was heading out on its shakedown cruise to the Caribbean. Hoover hitched a ride.
He started the trip on the defensive with the White House announcing that he was trying "to secure a short rest," contending that this jaunt to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands would be "the first vacation of the president since assuming office with the exception of a seven-day fishing trip to Florida something more than a year ago."
Time magazine described Hoover as "a very tired man" at the outset of the cruise. He wanted to escape his woes. But even on board the warship, Hoover could not duck the work of the presidency. Every day, an Army dirigible floated above the Arizona and dropped a bag marked "U.S. Mail for President Hoover and Party."
His main agenda, though, was relaxation and recovery. And it seemed to work. After many "long naps," exercise on the deck with a medicine ball, numerous movies, and dinners (in formal wear) accompanied by an orchestra, Hoover was rejuvenated. Time described him as "a new man physically ... his cheeks were a pinkish tan (and) lines around his eyes had been smoothed out."
He also seemed pleased at the press coverage of his cruise. He had told reporters on the trip with him to stop writing stories. "These are days to sleep, and I do not think that anyone expects you to send many news dispatches. ... I think three days of sleep would do us all good."
That's advice from the 31st president that the 44th president would enthusiastically endorse. He was a little wistful when he went on NBC's Meet the Press after last year's time on Martha's Vineyard. "What I'd love," he said, "is a vacation from the press."