Back at the Ranch

Beware the Idles of August

By Jonathan Martin
Sunday, August 13, 2006

You're probably not reading this. But if somehow you are, it's surely via the laptop you brought along with you to the tony island, cape or peninsula where you're summering. You certainly aren't spending this time of year in Washington, where tumbleweeds blow down K Street and the merchants in Georgetown hang "Gone Fishin' " signs in their storefront windows, are you? After all, nothing much happens in Washington during August.

This received wisdom is so ingrained in Washington's image of itself that it has almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But for the diehards who forgo the beaches and stay in town, this August -- with multiple wars in the Middle East, aging dictators in post-op and foiled terrorism plots in the air -- feels like anything but a slow news month. Indeed, for a time of year when supposedly no one is around to hear them, a lot of trees tend to fall during August. And they have usually fallen upon our presidents hardest of all.

It was Aug. 8, 1974, when President Richard M. Nixon flashed his defiant victory sign on the White House lawn, boarding Marine One as the first president in U.S. history to resign. Twenty-four Augusts later, another president faced up to scandal. Speaking from the White House Map Room on Aug. 17, 1998, Bill Clinton admitted to the nation that he "did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate." (On the same day, in case one crisis did not suffice, the Russian ruble collapsed, forcing Clinton to contend with the possibility of an international financial meltdown. Dramatic, certainly, though not enough to get Washington's mind off the presidential sex scandal.)

Nixon's disgrace notwithstanding, he at least enjoyed an uninterrupted vacation on the beaches of San Clemente because he was newly unemployed. Clinton, though, had only a two-day respite in Martha's Vineyard before returning to Washington to again address the nation -- this time to announce the launching of cruise missiles at suspected al-Qaeda hideouts in Afghanistan and Sudan. The move was a retaliation against the terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which had taken place earlier that August.

Presidents between Nixon and Clinton also had to confront crises while trying to enjoy their August down time. It was still Aug. 31, Washington time, when a Soviet fighter jet shot down a Korean Air 737 over the Sea of Japan in 1983, killing all 269 people on board. Shortly thereafter, President Ronald Reagan left behind the horseback riding and wood-chopping in Santa Barbara, Calif., to return to the capital. He later condemned the attack as a "massacre" and a "crime against humanity."

President George H.W. Bush endured August surprises in three of his four years in the Oval Office. First, in what would not be the last time he irritated the Bush clan, Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990, prompting Bush to return to work from the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, and launch Operation Desert Shield. The next summer brought more foreign-policy turmoil, when Russian hardliners sought to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev, accelerating the breakup of the Soviet Union and again forcing Bush to drop the horseshoes at Walker's Point.

Bush was handed his third August crisis when, at the end of the month in 1992, Hurricane Andrew tore its way across South Florida, leaving a swath of destruction and a political headache in its wake. Sensitive to election-year criticism that his administration had not responded quickly enough to the disaster, Bush decamped from Camp David back to Washington to meet with designated hurricane relief coordinator Andrew H. Card Jr. (remember that name) and to get something off his chest before the White House press corps.

"May I tell you something?" Bush growled to reporters. "This may be hard for you to believe. I am thinking about what's good for the people here. I don't even think about the politics of it. We're trying to help people. . . . Can't we help people without having somebody try to put a political interpretation in it? I mean, heaven's sakes. . . . "

No modern president, however, knows more about the danger of the Idles of August than George W. Bush. It was between brush-clearing and bass fishing in Crawford, Tex., that this President Bush was briefed on a memo titled, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US." The date: Aug. 6, 2001.

Four summers later, Bush's R&R at the ranch was interrupted first by Cindy Sheehan and her fellow war protesters. Then, on Aug. 29, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, forcing Bush to cut short his month-long vacation.

This year, with Washington purportedly shut down until after Labor Day, Bush is also at his ranch facing a full slate of challenges. The Middle East is awash in violence, Fidel Castro may be on his way out in Cuba (meaning more Cubans may be on their way in to Florida), North Korea is acting like, well, North Korea, hurricane season is entering its peak and British authorities foiled a terrorist plot targeting airplanes bound for the United States -- while British Prime Minister Tony Blair was vacationing in Barbados. Oh, and Sheehan and Co. are back in Crawford for another summer, this time with their own property from which to razz the president.

And those are just some of the problems we know about.

Given this daunting array of challenges, Bush will spend much less time this month at his beloved Prairie Chapel Ranch than he did in his first five summers as president. He reached Texas on Aug. 3 and is scheduled to return to Washington today. He may go back to Crawford later this month, but he won't come close to replicating his traditional month-long holiday.

Perhaps it took his own especially brutal August to teach Bush that, contrary to D.C. lore, plenty happens during this month, much of it unexpected -- and most of it bad.

Don't worry, though, about missing out on new policy pronouncements while you've got your own toes in the sand. Ten years after his stint as Bush 41's hurricane coordinator, Bush 43's then-Chief of Staff Andy Card put it best in 2002 when discussing the possibility of invading Iraq. "From a marketing point of view," he explained, "you don't introduce new products in August."

Jonathan Martin is a staff writer at National Journal's "The Hotline."

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