It's a hardy feeling. You can almost picture yourself issuing orders to the rest of the county: Send the bombers north; impound a billion dollars; do as I say and whatever I say. I'm the king of the mountain.
It was Camp David, of course, that Maureen Dean was writing about in her book "Mo." The 134-acre presidential hideaway is part of the Catoctin Mountain Park, and it used to take 90 minutes to drive there from Washington, up the narrow winding road from Thurmont, Md., past a small lake and some trails and Camp Mistv Mount.
Now you get there in a half-hour helicopter ride from the White House. In any case, you don't get there unless the president wants you.
That's the beauty of Camp David, and the reason why President Carter chose it for his special meeting today with Egypt's President Anwar Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel: The press can't get in, the public can't get in, the demonstrators, the shouters, the special pleaders, the bringers of new complexities to issues already complex enough - nobody can get in.
It is an article of faith with the powerful (and maybe with all of us) that if they could just get away to some high place, in a political vacuum, all light and no heat, if they could just sit down in this sanctuary and talk, they could solve all their problems. Leaders have sought such places for generations: Remember the great summit meetings of World War II, from Casablanca to Yalta?
Camp David is such a sanctuary.
The place originally was called Hi-Catoctin and was cleared in 1939. Three years later President Roosevelt built a secret retreat, Shangri-La, where he brought Winston Churchill to plot the invasion of Europe. The press loved to speculate where thus fabled hideout could be named after the Tibetan paradise of James Hilton's novel "Lost Horizon," where nobody got any older.
Roosevelt staffed the camp with the crew of the presidential yacht, and to this day the Navy handles much of the staff work. President Truman hated the rustic aerie in the thick forest of oak, chestnut and hickory, preferring the sun of Key West. But President Eisenhower loved it, renamed it Camp David after his grandson and fixed the plumbing.
The main lodge serves as the president's quarters. It is situated at the crest of a three-acre clearing and commands a stirring view of the Valley Below.
That lodge, as described in an Eisenhower press release, would be Aspen. The three original guest cabins, Witch Hazel, Dogwood and Maple, have been joined over the years by seven more and a dining lodge, Laurel.Most of the changes came in the Nixon days.
"Kennedy didn't use it much," recalled Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., from the Camelot inner circle. "He preferred Hyannis Port and the place in Virginia. It was like a military installation, you know, the houses were sort of that military temporary construction. It didn't appeal to him."
It seemed to depend on the presidential personality. Lyndon Johnson used it a lot, "mostly weekends," said aide Jack Valenti, "because it was isolated and he could talk without interruptions and be relaxed. He'd have cabinet members up there, and there were many sessions on Vietnam. The biggest one I saw was when Lester Pearson, the Canadian prime minister, was there. He was pretty cool, and there was a lot of spirited discussion about the war.
"It hadn't been dollied up yet, it wasn't opulent at all, but it was comfortable, like a rustic Holiday Inn. The scenery was marvelous, the air was cool. Johnson used the bowling alley and the pool, but there's also a one-hole golf course put in by Eisenhower, and tennis courts."
There are also movies, which Johnson used as sleeping pills. "They put him to sleep," said Valenti, now a motion picture executive. "the only one he ever finished was 'In Harm's Way,' with Kirk douglas and Duke Wayne, both friends of his."
Annual operating costs for Camp David have more than quadrupled since the start of the Nixon administration, begins a 1973 Washington Post story.
Rebuilding the camp to the time of $2.4 million, Nixon added security devices, buildings and a second pool, beside his lodge. (It had to be expensively cantilevered over a ledge because it was built on top of the bomb shelter).
Operating costs under Eisenhower were $276.000; under Kennedy, $378,500; under Johnson, $961,600.
Today the retreat costs $800,000 a year to operate and has a regular staff of about 100 sailors and 100 marines. The Carter administration has cut staff considerably, a spokesman said.
"Remember, the place was completely rebuilt in the Nixon years," said William Gulley, retired director of the White House military office who served under four presidents. "Before, they just had a few marines there and would take up a couple truckloads when the president went there. Johnson used it about 12 times a year, Kennedy and Eisenhower about the same, Truman less, and Nixon many more times than all the others put together."
For all the people roaming through the bushes with rifles, for all the guests tooling around in the golf carts and bikes they were issued, it was a quiet place most of the time.
"You'd never see the Marines, they'd sort of fade into the trees," Gulley said. "The staff would eat at Laurel, where there was a conference room for 50 people, a presidential office, a TV room and so on. There's a lot of glass, big windows overlooking the woods."
The guest cabins were modified, given stereos, colof TV, portable bars, fireplaces. At Laurel, which cost a reported $750,000, there is a huge galley among other features, and a 35-mm projector with a projectionist on 24-hour duty. There is a skeet range, a basketball court, Caroline Kennedy's pony ring, and even a trampoline, favored by Luci Johnson and Susan Ford.
Nixon went there before his speeches. Nothing can get to you there, not even congressmen or senators. He like the insolation.
In the Nixon years, the press was barred except for a 50-foot trailer and a wooden duckblind at the gate from which they could observe the helicopter landings. Even that was removed in 1972. Nixon built two rows of seven-foot electric chain link fence topped by vicious-looking concertina wire and rigged with sensors. Marines with attack dogs patrolled the zone on either side, sometimes scaring the pants off adventurous guests.
(It's a great place for dogs, by the way. LBJ's Him and Blanco spent months up there, chasing squirrels and deer. Nixon's King Timahoe was forever running away, in the tradition of Irish setters; and when the president departed, the dog sometimes had to be left behind for the Secret Servicemen to catch.)
Everybody had to be cleared. Sometimes admirals and generals would grandly bring their families up for a picnic but couldn't get in, huff and puff as they might. (In the early '70s some anti-war demonstrators got as far as the gate.)
The Nixon era saw great events at the camp, notably a friendly meeting with Leonid Brezhnev that was distinctly in "the spirit of Camp David," a phrase that dates from Eisenhower and Khrushchev's great rapproachment there in 1959. There were tow key economic summit conference, producing what came to be called Nixon's New Economic Policy, and business huddles with assorted important people from all over the world.
It was a family place, too. Edward and Tricia Cox honeymooned there in 1971, Mamie Eisenhower visited the Nixons once, and in 1973, after Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nixon tribe retreated there to commisenrate with the disappointed president.
Most of all, it was the scene of political bloodletting. Jeb Magruder tells of the time he was unjustly berated at dinner in front of several cabinet members. And soon after the 1972 election Nixon summoned most of his cabinet to the camp to inform them it was a whole new ball game. The press called the helicopter traffic from the White House "the Mt. Sinai Shuttle."
Peter G. Peterson, secretary of Commerce, was one. Before the group, Nixon praised his work extravagantly - and then told him he was to be a sort of superambassador to Brussels, home of the Common Market. "It took him several days," Theodore H. White said in "Breach of Faith," "to realize his throat had been cut."
Then there were those stormy encounters in 1973, especially the time Haldeman and Ehrlichman were fired.
Haldeman rode his bike over to Aspen that April afternoon. "The president was waiting for me," he wrote in "The Ends of Power." "He came over, patted my shoulder and said, 'Let's go out on the terrace.' We walked out onto the terrace. I could see this was a deeply emotional moment for him. It was hard for him to start. He said, 'This is so beautiful; these lovely tulips down here . . .'"
And later, in August, when Nixon worked with Ray Price and Pat Buchanan on a speech that would neither quite resign nor dare an impeachment: All day, people were running back and forth among the trees with messages and drafts of the speech. His family was there with him, though the staffers noted that he and Mrs. Nixon saw little of each other and barely spoke. To the family he said he would fight on.
Someone remembers him gazing out the picture window and muttering that he would miss the putting green and the stumping off. The next day, Sunday the 4th his staff showed up to urge once again that he resign.
At the very last, in the midst of all the uproar that accompanies the fall of a powerful man, Nixon was heard to say he wanted a set of the special Camp David mugs to take with him into retirement.
What, I asked myself, does a woman wear to Camp David?
Maybe the best way to get the feel of the place in the Nixon years is to her husband John was holed up there for five days in 1973 on orders to write a report for the defense on Watergate.
She had brought no books, found the ones on the shelves dull, could conjure up nothing on TV. John spent the days on the phone, or walking alone in the woods, or writing the abortive report. Bored frantic, she saw five movies in three days, lounged by the hour on a nine-foot sofa under a blanket with a wine bottle in a bucket beside her, collected packs of cigarettes with the Camp David seal.
The cabins were not plush, she wrote, but "oh so comfortable." There were "lots and lots of telephones," and you could phone for drinks or snacks any hour of the day or night. The Filipino stewards in red jackets, white shirts and black trousers were mind readers: Accustommed to virtual teetotalers like Halderman and Ehrlichman, they adapted in a few hours to the sesperately pressured Deans and brought bottles of wine and scotch to the cabin.
In the cabin, to which they were directed by a Navy ensign upon arrival, hung two navy blue blazers with Camp David insignia on the left pocket. They fit John and Maureen perfectly and were to be kept. If you didn't take yours along when you left, it would be sent to you.
Dinner for two in Laurel: a fire in the fireplace, large paintings on the walls, "a sort of Williamsburg look" with lots of wingback chairs, sofas, a big coffee table. On all the tables fresh flower and candles, though the Deans were the only guests at the camp. (Nixon had ordered Mrs. Nixon and an ailing Tricia out of there just so that Dean could have the place to himself.)
You could have anything you wanted for dinner. They ordered Long Island duckling, baked Alaska, a fine wine. Though occasionally someone would try the immense resources of the kitchen - Haldeman once had stone crabs which an aide brought in specially - the big favorite of the day were minute steaks.
After dinner the Deans tried to peek in the windows of Nixon's quarters, but could see nothing. He was supposed to have a huge stereo system before which he conducted symphonies in solitude.
As for what to wear to Camp David, Nixon gave his women a special dispensation to go around in pants.
It depends on your working habits. Carter enjoys it almost as much Nixon. Ford preferred golf on the weekends when he wasn't working in the White House itself.
A Ford man, John O. Marsh, added that he only visited the camp once. "We used the yacht Sequoia more. Ford would let people in his administration use it quite a bit, let them go up with their families, and there were a lot of conferences, seminars, at various levels."
Ford's Press Secretary Ron Nessen noted that, though his president didn't use it more than every two or three months, "Mrs. Ford like it very much. She said, 'Let's move the White House up here,' when she saw it on that first tour.I don't remember what the president answered."
Ford invariably brought his loaded briefcase to the place even on casual weekends, but at least twice in Nessen's memory he chose it for major events: a conference with speechwriters for the 1976 campaign and a famous phone call he made to Anwar Sadat in Egypt, when the connection was so terrible that some wags theorized he really spent the whole time talking to the Cairo operator.
This time Sadat won't have to shout. When he and Begin meet at Camp David they will have all the privacy they need, it seems, for the press will be kept at bay with one briefing a day held in the American Legion hall at Thurmont, five miles down the mountain.
Thurmont likes to seem nonchalant about its location. In the days when people drove, the town thought nothing of seeing Winston Churchill stop at the Cozy restaurant for a bottle of pop while awaiting clearance. If it wasn't him, it was Henry Cabot Lodge, or Babe Ruth. The helicopters have whisked away that bit of glamor.
Still, the camp guards drop in regularly for haircuts and beer, and now the town is booming because of the press invasion. It's all very homey. It just shows how close you can be to immense power and not get a piece of it. Money rubs off on those it brushes; power never.