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Why should we care what the Obamas do on vacation?

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By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why do we care about presidential holidays? I don't know for certain, but I'm blaming the Kennedys, whose photogenic touch football games and elegant yachts set a standard to which later presidents could only aspire. They did have precursors: Franklin Roosevelt was photographed fishing in Florida, riding horses, even swimming at a pebbly beach. And there are many, many pictures of his cousin Theodore holding up his hunting trophies in exotic forests.

Of course, the Kennedys and the Roosevelts had a huge advantage in the holiday stakes. Like the Bushes and the Reagans, they owned beautiful, tasteful country properties, to which they could retire in serene elegance. Better still, these properties reflected their personalities in an electorally advantageous way. John F. Kennedy's passion for sports established him as youthful and energetic. Ronald Reagan's California ranch lent him a cowboy gloss. Bush Senior's retreat echoed his New England roots. Bush Junior's house in Crawford firmed up his link to Texas -- as opposed to New England -- and gave him the good-old-boy credentials he lacked.

Only two presidents in recent memory have not had vacation homes of their own: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Not coincidentally, it is their vacation choices that have been most heavily criticized. When he was down in Crawford, George W. Bush surrounded himself with like-minded friends and admirers. Away from the cameras, he had a break from constant public surveillance and the Washington rat race. But when Clinton went to Martha's Vineyard to surround himself with likeminded friends and admirers (and to enjoy a break from constant public surveillance and the Washington rat race), he was damned as an elitist. So was Obama, who went there last summer for exactly the same reasons.

Why, exactly, is borrowing or renting someone's house more elitist than owning one? Why is Martha's Vineyard snobbier than Kennebunkport, Hyannis Port or even a private Texas ranch? I don't know, but that's what everyone said, and thus were the Clintons forced to take a pretend "vacation" in Jackson Hole, Wyo. During this "vacation," they had to provide photo opportunities to the press to prove that they really were normal Americans -- which, of course, they were not. Once elected, no president is ever a normal American again.

The same fate has now befallen Obama, whose lack of a permanent country residence has also made him inexplicably appear more elitist. Having done the Martha's Vineyard thing last year, and been duly criticized, he has made up for it with visits to Maine, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and North Carolina, all places where "average" Americans like to go.

But then, a few weeks ago, Michelle slipped off to Spain and had lunch with the king. I suspect this was a rather jolly affair, especially for 9-year-old Sasha, who was traveling with her mother, but it went down badly with Americans who used to like it when their first ladies had lunch with kings but don't any longer. In penance, the Obamas set off last week for Panama City, Fla., where they played mini-golf in front of the cameras and talked about the clean water. Golly, that must have been relaxing -- about as relaxing as appearing on prime-time television, making a speech to a vast audience or otherwise performing onstage for a large crowd.

Yes, it's good for the Obamas to tour the Gulf Coast and to be photographed on beaches that are not covered with black oil slicks. It's great that they are promoting tourism in a region that needs it. But why do they have to pretend they are on vacation? Why do Americans now demand that they "relax" in politically acceptable surroundings?

We all know that the situation is phony, that it's not really a vacation and that it's not really fun to play mini-golf on TV. Yet so addicted have we become to orchestrated "reality" -- reality television, cooked-up celebrity stories, Hollywood's fictionalizations of historical events -- that we now want our president to play along with a made-up narrative, too. Not only are our leaders supposed to run the country, they have to pretend to be average. This is ridiculous.

Let the Obama family go on vacation. Let them go wherever they want. Let them do whatever they want. Let the president work out, play basketball, whatever. Let the first lady read a good novel and have lunch with whomever she pleases. Let's not talk about them for a few weeks. This is what mid-August is for: Why do we need to think about them when we're on vacation, too?

applebaumletters@ washpost.com


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