Members of Congress headed home this week. The lobbyists have skipped out too, taking their big appetites to the beach for the Memorial Day weekend. Even the cicadas are looking ahead to a nice long rest. And then there is the part of Washington with rhythms that follow the four-year campaign cycle, a group that this weekend is grappling with that neurotic, shame-filled ritual that in other cities is known as taking a vacation.
By the logic of the presidential campaign schedule, this is the last best chance for a getaway. The campaign began at warp speed in the fall and will shoot off again in the summer, heading into both parties' national conventions. That leaves this last weekend in May:
"This is it," says Katherine Miller, a consultant to Democratic interest groups. "Now or never."
"This is the last hurrah," says her friend and vacation partner Anna Greenberg, vice president of the Democratic polling firm Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research. "We have to go now before it gets really busy."
The women and another friend planned to spend 10 days driving around Provence, France. Ten luxurious, conference-call-free days. So exotic! So relaxing! Then, as Thursday's liftoff approached, "I panicked," says Miller. "What if someone really needs me? What if something comes up that's just so important. Oh, my God, what if the candidate does something on one of my issues and I'm . . . in . . . Provence?"
All this week Miller stayed up until 2 a.m., writing memos for clients, running around "like a chicken without a head." Then at the last minute she bought a Triband phone that works internationally and a BlackBerry, and stayed on the phone with tech support to make sure everything worked. "And if it doesn't, well, it made me feel better to buy it."
Such is the drama of the Washington vacation. These women were lucky. At this moment, they may be picnicking on the slope of some vineyard. Many of their compatriots, particularly those at the center of the campaigns, just could not bring themselves to leave.
Presidential adviser Karl Rove will not be dove hunting. Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill will not be attending a craft fair. And their loyal staffs will follow suit. "I'm not going away," says Stephanie Cutter, spokeswoman for Kerry. "I'm not aware of anyone going away. This is a different election year -- we've been going full tilt since March."
Terry Holt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, was working at home yesterday and hanging out with his 4-year-old son. He says the campaign tries to be family-friendly and doesn't put a heavy premium on showing up in the office on the weekend. Still, he says, "the campaign works 24-7. The days left are too few and time is precious."
In New York, vacations are signs of success. People brag about how many days they'll spend in the Hamptons or at Martha's Vineyard. Here, the few souls who manage to sneak away will lie about what they're doing, or admit it only under duress. Four campaign staffers asked by a reporter whether they were taking a vacation said some version of "Off the record, the answer is yes."
"It's not that I lied exactly, but I made it seem like I'd be very available," says one Republican, who insisted on anonymity for reasons he thought were perfectly obvious. "And I will be available. I just don't want to seem like the kind of person who, you know, takes a lot of vacations. . . . It's only a long weekend."
"The words 'campaign' and 'vacation' do not belong in the same sentence, or even the same paragraph," says Ed Rogers, a Republican consultant. "It is socially unacceptable on a campaign to go on vacation. And if we went, we would sneak around and pretend we were doing something else."
The ubiquity of BlackBerries and cell phones are a gift and a curse. They mean you can sneak a little farther away, but also that "there is no real getting away from the campaign," says Kerry spokesman Mark Kornblau. "But we are all committed to getting John Kerry elected, so there are no complaints."
From a survey of staff, here are the unwritten rules of the Washington campaign staffer's vacation.
1. Don't go.
2. Don't ask to go.
3. If you have to go, don't tell anyone. Keep in touch, pretend you're working at home.
4. Tell your assistant to say, "She's traveling" or "She's out on family business."
5. If you have to tell, call it a "long weekend."
6. Always, always stay in cell phone range. No remote cabins, no mountain lodges.
Kerry strategist Michael Meehan says that with fewer than 160 days till the election, a 24-hour news cycle and Kerry working this weekend, it's not really possible to go away. The only excuses are major events involving close family members, and even then you get only a 36-hour window. Cahill got to escape once for her nephew's first communion, for example.
As compensation for having to work this weekend, Kerry staff meetings will start at 9 a.m. instead of 7:30, maybe even on Monday.
Some of the, shall we say, "passionate" staff for Ralph Nader did not seem to realize there was a holiday weekend. Spokesman Kevin Zeese was reached outside his office on his cell phone. "I'm looking for food," he said. (Even a Naderite needs to eat.) "We have a pretty strong work ethic. We know Ralph is out there on his eight-state tour. We know he's working hard and that sets the tone." Pretty quickly, the conversation veered off the topic of vacation and made its way to more comfortable territory: Iraq, impeaching Bush, the fairness of ballot access laws, etc.
Weddings are a tricky affair. Christine Iverson, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, got engaged in March and wanted to get married before the election. But with the wedding and honeymoon "we'd have to be away at least three weeks." That, of course, was impossible. Instead she planned the wedding for Nov. 13.
Lorraine Voles, a Democratic strategist, says she talked to a friend last week who was offered a job with the Kerry campaign but was fretting because she had a vacation planned with her boyfriend around July 4, which this year, sadly, falls on a Sunday.
"It's pathetic. Of course people here are so self-important they couldn't possibly go on vacation because the world would stop revolving without them," she says. "Can you imagine Bethany [Beach] this weekend, people lying on the beach with their BlackBerries? It's horrible."
Some campaign veterans have no patience for this attitude. To former Bill Clinton strategist Paul Begala, a campaign is a band-of-brothers thing, and taking a vacation betrays that ethos.
"No! No! They shouldn't take a vacation. The campaign itself is the vacation from the real world," he says. In his time working on campaigns, he remembers taking only one vacation. He was working on Frank Lautenberg's Senate campaign, and the whole staff went away together to the Jersey shore.
There they were, a bunch of "unshaven half-naked men passed out on the floor, watching a ball game and drinking beer at 11 a.m." A young boy knocked at the door to collect money for some good cause, peeked inside and fled.
"The campaign is about not having a life," Begala says, offering words of caution and comfort to those stuck in the office this weekend. "So you shouldn't try to have one."