Getting Away From It All. Sort Of.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Barack Obama is vacationing in Hawaii this week, and John McCain plans a few days off later this month. But how relaxing can leisure time for presidents -- and the men who would be presidents -- ever really be?

Andrew Jackson was one of the first presidents to have to contend with crowds, which accosted him when he traveled to his beloved Hermitage in Tennessee every other summer. In July of 1832, for instance, shortly after issuing his veto of the National Bank, he was greeted in Lexington, Ky., by a wildly enthusiastic mob of about 5,000 . He didn't deliver any campaign speeches, but according to a press account, he gave away "all the locks [of hair] he could spare" to female admirers. When President Chester A. Arthur took a vacation in Yellowstone in 1883, reporters were banned from accompanying him. As one official explained: "If we have a newspaper man along our pleasure will be destroyed."

More than a century later, however, having a "newspaper man" along for the ride seemed key to the vacation itself: Bill Clinton's strategist Dick Morris used polls to determine that voters might not like the usual Clinton vacation spot of Martha's Vineyard -- too elitist for ordinary Americans. So the Clintons went to Jackson Hole, Wyo., and made sure that photographers caught the president astride a horse, clad in blue denim and cowboy hat.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry might have wished he'd done a survey before windsurfing off Nantucket in 2004, a moment that became memorialized in Republican attack ads that ostensibly took aim at Kerry's propensity for tacking with the wind but also sent the not-so-subtle message that he was out of touch with average Americans. It was much safer for the presidential image to spend vacations clearing brush at a Santa Barbara ranch, as Ronald Reagan did, or riding a mountain bike in Crawford, Tex., as President Bush has preferred to do. It's no day at the beach, but then, that's the idea.

-- Richard J. Ellis, author of "Presidential Travel: The Journey from George Washington to George W. Bush."

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