When asked to make predictions about Washington politics, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, a former TIME magazine scribe, likes to tell his ex-colleagues that he has “hung up” his “reporter’s cleats.”
But that doesn’t mean the words he once wrote while covering the White House won’t come back to haunt him in his current job.
As President Obama prepares for a 10-day vacation in Martha’s Vineyard on Thursday, Carney has been defending the trip against critics who say the president should cancel the getaway to the pricey island at a time of national economic hardship.
Carney said last week that he does not think Americans “would begrudge that notion that the president would spend some time with his family.” He added that Obama will get daily briefings from his national security and economic teams and be prepared to return to Washington in an emergency.
Carney asserted that any reporter who had covered past administrations would attest that “there is no such thing as a presidential vacation. The presidency travels with you.”
Yet a number of bloggers have seized on a 2001 column that Carney, now 46, wrote for TIME in which he took then President George W. Bush to task for scheming to dress up a vacation at his Crawford, Texas, ranch to look like work time.
Bush’s “imagemakers hit upon a clever idea,” Carney wrote. “Every week, they decided, they would send the president somewhere outside Texas for a day or a day and a half to hold an event of some kind in which he would mix with ‘real Americans.’
“The events would have little in common,” Carney continued, “except for the fact that they would be held far from Washington in the middle of August. But to tie them together and to make it seem as though the President were engaged in some concentrated activity of presidential purpose, they would name the series of trips — together with his downtime at his ranch in Crawford, Texas — the Home to the Heartland tour.”
Obama has no plans to journey outside Martha’s Vineyard during his 10-day retreat in the same fashion.
But in advance of his vacation this week, Obama headed out on a three-day bus tour of the Midwest that featured several town hall-style appearances in small towns, a series of events that handlers cast as a time for the president to listen to how the economic slowdown has affected ordinary Americans.
It also might be a good way to combat claims that the president is appearing out-of-touch on his vacation.
“I’m not going to feign shock by the fact that Bush is using photo ops in an attempt — some might say a cynical attempt — to influence public opinion,” Carney wrote in 2001. “It would be news if he weren’t doing that. But it is worth noting that in the same week that Bush ventured to a pristine piece of the country to help maintain a nature trail and tout the money he put in his budget to help restore national parks, the news out of Washington carried a very different message.”