Monday, August 15, 2011

Presidential Vacations

President Obama is getting some flak about going on vacation to Martha's Vinyard. His press secretary had to defend the trip last week.

...yes, the President does plan to travel with his family at the end of August to Martha's Vineyard as he has in the past. And I don't think Americans out there would begrudge that notion that the President would spend some time with his family. It is also, as I think anyone who has covered in the past, either in this administration or others, there is no such thing as a presidential vacation. The Presidency travels with you. He will be in constant communication and get regular briefings from his national security team as well as his economic team. And he will of course be fully capable, if necessary, of traveling back if that were required.

Time away from the White House does not always reflect well on a president. Two damaging reports undercut the Clinton administration. The first was him collapsing during a race. After that people started talking about how much he had aged in office. The second one was worse. While fishing, a rabbit swam in the general direction of the President's boat so the Secret Service took steps, driving it off with a paddle. The White House refused to release photos of the incident prompting CBS to run a clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the knights attacked a killer rabbit.

Reagan was a master at public relations. He vacationed on his ranch and pictures of him usually showed him riding a horse or clearing brush. The message was that even though Reagan was one of the oldest men ever elected president, he was still healthy.

George H. W. Bush (41) was on vacation when Iraq invaded Kuwait and gas prices soared. He spent the day driving his cigarette boat which burned several gallons of gas per hour. This image was part of the general impression of him as being out of touch with regular people.

The Clintons went to Martha's Vinyard. Like Obama, they were criticized. Clinton's answer was that he was not a rich man with his own estate so he had to stay with friends (in their expensive homes on exclusive islands) for vacation.

George W. Bush (43) learned from both Reagan and his father. He bought a ranch and spent his vacations clearing brush. This also kept the press at arm's length since the closest hotel was a long distance away. The ranch did not protect Bush from war-protester, Cindy Sheehan who set up camp at the other end of the road. This expanded into Camp Casey (named after her son who had been killed in Iraq). This was the real start of the anti-Iraq war movement. (While the Democrats supported Sheehan at the time, they split with her after taking control of Congress but allowing the war to continue. Sheehan later admitted that she had been used by the Democrats.)

Early in his administration Bush was criticized for the amount of time be spent on vacation. Michael Moore even included clips of Bush with the song "Vacation." This was misleading. It turned out that the list of time Bush spent on vacation included weekends, state dinners, time spent at Camp David entertaining visiting heads of state, and time spent on official trips abroad. Remember this when the Press Secretary talks about the American people knowing that the presidency travels with you.

Which brings us back to the Obamas. Last year Michelle was heavily criticized for the number of vacations she took at taxpayer expense. They also spend Christmas in Hawaii. They do not seem to have learned much from previous criticism. Presidents can get a big boost from symbolism. Obama could have announced that it was wrong to go on an expensive trip in a down economy and spent the time at Camp David. It would have given him a needed public relations boost.

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