History of Modern Presidential Vacations

Like everything presidential, the first family’s choice for their August vacation is highly politicized. You can typically expect to see the President being as American as humanly possible while pretending to relax. This means playing golf and watching baseball, all while chomping hot dogs and hamburgers wrapped in red white and blue packaging.

“There’s been a public significance to presidential vacations going back all the way to Lincoln, who went to the Soldier’s Home in Washington during the Civil War,” Princeton University history professor Sean Wilentz told the Washington Post. “You have to show the country that you are getting respite from the job, but also that you are still ever at the ready. It’s a delicate balance.”

And while the Commander in Chief works on his swing in the Vineyard, a more overt political game unfolds each year back in Washington. This year, that has centered on the battle over health care reform and the apparent wrath of teabaggers across the country. But as President Obama’s Martha’s Vineyard vacation comes to a close, I took a look at what major events have occurred during August vacations in years past. One aspect jumps off the page: Presidents Clinton and Bush II were careful stay out of policy debates. Reagan and Bush I, on the other hand, regularly engaged from their vacation homes.

While on vacation in California in 1987, Ronald Reagan took a quick break to make a speech about East-West relations. Nikolai Shislin, a staff member of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee, was outspoken in his opposition to the speech. “The United States will not act as a teacher for the Soviet Union, just as the Soviet Union is not going to teach the United States,” he said. After thanking the President for taking time out of his vacation to address the issue, Shislin added, “That is the only complimentary thing I can find to say.”

In 1991, George H.W. Bush also had difficulty avoiding work while on vacation. Only months after the fall of the Soviet Union, Bush vacationed in Kennebunkport, Maine in August. But, having trouble letting go, he invited British Prime Minister John Major along for the ride. He interrupted the vacation to tell the press that the United States should not rush to grant the new Russian state financial aid. “Let’s get the facts, deal from strength…and then make decisions,” he said.

Bill Clinton had a tough 1994. Directly after admitting to the public that substantial health care reform might be impossible that year, he escaped to Martha’s Vineyard for some golf and hang out time with songwriter James Taylor. Meanwhile, the battle over health care reform continued to rage in Washington. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (now Obama’s middle east envoy) drew the ire of Senate Dems for trying to cancel their vacations to continue debating health care. Sen. Bennett Johnston (D-LA) warned that the last time a Democratic Majority Leader kept the Senate in session through August, the GOP gained seats in the next election (see: Robert Byrd in 1980). Mitchell cancelled his plans, but it didn’t help the fate of Dems in November, when Newt Gingrich and his “Contract with America” decisively seized control of Congress.

In 1998, the year that Bill Clinton‘s, well, problematic relationship Monica Lewinsky went public, Bill and Hillary still made sure to escape to Martha’s Vineyard for some R&R in August. But the embattled president was careful to have no fun. According to the AP, “Clinton has spent much of his vacation secluded with his wife Hillary and their daughter Chelsea, playing no golf and concentrating on what his press secretary called family ‘healing.'” Clinton was impeached just four months later.

With opposition to the Iraq war mounting, Cindy Sheehan, whose son died in Iraq in April 2004, set up shop outside of George W. Bush‘s favorite vacation spot, his ranch in Crawford, Texas, demanding that Bush speak to her about the war. The protest, which accumulated a massive following, became a poignant symbol against the War in Iraq, especially when juxtaposed with media images of Bush continuing his vacation as planned. And Cindy is at it again, but now in Martha’s Vineyard, where she took her traveling war protest to President Obama.


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