Even when President Obama is on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, he still has to attend to the duties of the Oval Office. Lawrence Knutson, author of "Away from the White House: Presidential Escapes, Retreats, and Vacations," gives a look back at the origin of presidential vacations and the criticism that accompanies them. (Jayne W. Orenstein/The Washington Post)
August 15

Scott Farris is the author of “Kennedy & Reagan: Why Their Legacies Endure.”

You would think that one thing Americans could agree on is that the leader of the free world could occasionally use a day off. But even presidents’ vacations can be controversial, as partisans argue over whether the time away is detrimental to the nation. With President Obama and his family enjoying their annual summer trek to Martha’s Vineyard, let’s examine five myths about presidential vacations.

1. Presidents get vacations.

“Presidents don’t get vacations — they just get a change of scenery,” Nancy Reagan once said in defense of her husband’s frequent trips to his ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif.

In the nuclear age, presidents may have only minutes to make a decision that could affect the entire world. They don’t so much leave the White House as they take a miniature version of it with them wherever they go. Some 200 people accompany a president on vacation — including White House aides, Secret Service agents, military advisers, and experts in communications and transportation — to ensure that, while on vacation, the president can do nearly everything he could accomplish in Washington.

He continues to receive daily intelligence and national security briefings while on vacation. Presidents also continue to tape weekly radio broadcasts, hold news conferences, attend political fundraisers and occasionally, as Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan did, entertain British royalty.

Vacations don’t stop presidents from making major decisions. For example, Reagan was enjoying a quiet weekend at Camp David when he decided to fire striking air-traffic controllers in 1981.

2. Presidential vacations harm the national agenda.

This past week, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank accused Obama of “tone deafness” for going forward with his vacation while the world was in crisis. But when is the world not in crisis?

A vacation can provide a president with that most precious and rare of commodities in the Oval Office: time to relax and think — including time to think about how to deal with a crisis.

Shortly after his reelection to a third term in 1940, Roosevelt was criticized for taking a 10-day fishing trip in the Caribbean while Britain was under assault by Nazi Germany. But FDR used that rare opportunity for reflection to devise his ingenious Lend-Lease program, which would provide vital aid to Britain to stave off the Nazi attack.

Presidents often feel the need to assure Americans that they’re using their vacations productively. Karl Rove, adviser to President George W. Bush, always alerted the media to the scholarly books the president intended to read while on vacation.

It is also unlikely that Obama would have held a news conference on Iraq this past week had he remained in Washington, but he did so while at Martha’s Vineyard to refute claims that he was seemingly “detached as the world burns.”

3. George W. Bush took more vacation days than any other president.

During his eight-year presidency, Bush did take 879 days of vacation, including 77 trips to his Texas ranch. So far, Obama has taken about 150 days off. But our founders were away even more.

During his first two years in office, President John Adams was criticized for making two lengthy trips to his home in Quincy, Mass., taking him away from the capital, which was then Philadelphia, for a total of eight months. Adams left Philadelphia to avoid a yellow-fever outbreak and then to care for his ill wife, Abigail. And his absence came at a time when the United States nearly went to war with France.

Even during the Civil War, historian Matthew Pinsker points out, President Abraham Lincoln spent 25 percent of his time, including fully half of 1862, at the Soldiers’ Home near Washington’s Petworth and Park View neighborhoods. Pinsker says Lincoln especially enjoyed going there on hot days because the cottage where he stayed was shaded and the slightly higher elevation picked up cool breezes absent from the White House.

There seems to be no correlation between vacation days and a president’s legacy. No modern president took less vacation than Jimmy Carter (79 days), while Ronald Reagan spent 335 days at his beloved California ranch. President John F. Kennedy spent nearly every weekend of his shortened presidency at one of his family’s several properties. FDR made 134 trips to Hyde Park and spent an additional six months of his presidency in Warm Springs, Ga., where he treated symptoms of his polio. Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage while vacationing at Warm Springs on April 12, 1945.

4. Taxpayers foot the bill for presidential vacations.

Presidents pay for their own and their families’ lodging, food and incidentals while on vacation, which may be why they generally prefer to stay at properties they own, as guests of wealthy friends or at the official presidential retreat at Camp David.

But since presidential vacations are always working vacations, taxpayers cover what it takes to keep the commander in chief working. Lodging and meals are an extra cost, but taxpayers pay the salaries of White House staffers and Secret Service agents whether the president stays in Washington or not, so a presidential vacation does not significantly increase personnel costs.

The biggest additional expense is the use of Air Force One and the support aircraft needed to haul all the equipment and ground transportation the president needs. The Congressional Research Service estimated that the cost of operating Air Force One is nearly $180,000 per hour. Ultimately, a presidential vacation can cost taxpayers an additional $1 million or considerably more than if the president had just stayed put in the White House. How significant this is within a $3.5 trillion federal budget is something voters can decide for themselves.

5. Presidents can vacation anywhere.

The controversy over vacations allegedly began with President Gerald R. Ford, who was criticized for vacationing at the upscale Vail Ski Resort in Colorado, while the nation was in a recession.

But exclusive, high-end resorts suit the Secret Service’s needs. The agents like that Martha’s Vineyard is an island, where everyone entering and leaving can be easily tracked. The Secret Service is aware of the most tragic presidential vacation, when James Garfield was preparing to board a train for his first vacation as president in 1881 and was shot by an assassin.

In addition to the security, exclusive resorts are also generally out of reach for average Americans, which means that vacationing presidents aren’t inconveniencing average Americans with their entourages. Worried that relaxing on Martha’s Vineyard made him appear out of touch, Bill Clinton vacationed outside Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming in 1995 and 1996. But locals complained that he was disrupting the tourist season; and Clinton, according to his then-pollster Dick Morris, allegedly “hated” hiking, fishing and camping even if it did help his poll numbers.

When it comes to getting away from it all, presidents can’t get a break, no matter where they go.

outlook@washpost.com

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