Who wore it best? This game is at the center of presidential punditry, although it's not articles of clothing that are being juxtaposed, but articles of administration. In how many ways do our current leaders seem deficient, when compared to their antecedents?
Let's start with President Obama. He fails to give enough press conferences, he doesn't talk to Congress enough, he makes decisions without congressional approval, his speeches are lame, he's snobby, and too much like a professor, so on and so forth.
Some of these complaints are worth making, but the reasoning for why Obama is a failure on all these counts could use some work.
Each time these grievances are trotted out, and the Internet's circadian rhythms dictate that each must make an appearance at least twice a year, the argument's proof rests on the fact that the Greek chorus condemning Obama's performance consists not of pundits, but of the presidents who came before him. President Clinton never gave lame speeches! President Reagan would never give remarks without a tie! I don't remember Franklin Pierce leading from behind!
The most incorrigible of these grievances has to be the ode to the optics of the Energizer Bunny President -- the president who gives decisions without ever leaving the Oval Office and always with the right scenery, and happens to have never existed except in American historical memory.
This is not the first time Obama has been called out for golfing, and it surely isn't the last. Several people have noted that -- unlike Obama -- President George W. Bush gave up golf after getting pushback following these remarks.
Instead of rehashing all the times when previous presidents faced the same backlash...
... or debating the merits of presidential vacations -- we're going to revisit times when the press absolutely reveled in the idea of presidential vacations, complimenting the leaders on their well-rested demeanor (although you can sense the seeds of tsking beginning to plant in some of the dispatches). Regardless of the framing, past or present, it's hard to fault Obama for vacations based on the example of previous presidents. If anything, we've already forced modern presidents to adopt the American way of the working -- or basically nonexistent -- vacation.
In the end, the thing that has changed most about presidential vacations is not their timing or frequency or meaning, but the access we have to judge the president during his trips -- and the space we have to opine about it.
In early September 1885, President Cleveland returned from the Adirondacks, and reporters decided the trip had done him good. In great detail. The New York Times reported that the president and his vacation buddy were
wrapped in thick overcoats, as the mercury was down among the forties, plainly showed the benefits of their trip into the woods. The President, who had a wearied expression and flabby appearance at the time he started for Saranac Lake, was the picture of health. His face was bronzed by exposure to the sun and air, his eye was bright, his flesh, although not diminished by the exercise of hunting, fishing, and tramping through the wilderness, seemed solid and firm, and there was an elasticity and heartiness in his movements and manner that indicated he was in good trim to renew his fight with the politicians."
Cleveland had been gone for four weeks.
The Washington Post, April 9, 1923:
There were many who welcomed President and Mrs. Harding back to Washington yesterday after their five weeks' vacation, but it is doubtful if there was any more sincere greeting given the Chief Executive than that of Laddie Boy, the aristocratic White House airedale.
The Washington Post, July 25, 1925:
Mr. Coolidge's real vacation will come when he goes to the old home in Vermont where is was born and where his father lives ... then, and probably not until then, when he is privileged to put on the old smock and overalls, go into the fields and do a little work free from visitors and official cares, will the President get the real recreation and relief from public duties that he longs for. The country and the people of Washington hope when that time comes he will have a real, old-fashioned and enjoyable vacation."
Franklin D. Roosevelt
The Washington Post, March 17, 1950:
"President Truman stepped jauntily off his White House yacht today for a work-and-play vacation in the Florida sunshine. He got the most pressing work -- legislation -- out of the way as soon as possible, and put on the loudest sports shirt he could find. It is white, but embroidered on the front pocket by a Florida palm tree. Taking up most of the back is one of the biggest palm trees ever to adorn a sports shirt even in this palm-conscious State. The brown trunks he wore a short time later for his first trip to the enlisted men's beach for a swim in the Gulf and a snooze in the sun-lit sands appeared drab by comparison with his walking costume, topped, as it was, by a white pith helmet.
We can debate if this counts as complimentary coverage, given that this appears to be Truman's Dad Jeans-Gate.
John F. Kennedy
The New York Times, July 6, 1961:
"President Kennedy stepped out of a helicopter and strode briskly to his White House desk today, sun-tanned and looking rested after his Cape Cod holiday. ... As Mr. Kennedy stepped from his helicopter on the White House lawn, a group of candidates for the title 'Miss Universe" stood to one side. They had just toured the White House. The President expressed some interest and learned who they were."
Lyndon B. Johnson
The Washington Post, June 24, 1967:
"He is barely sitting again, when the jet comes in to land. it runs up black macadam toward the ranch house. "Look at those cows," the President says. "Ain't they pretty?" ... Mr. Johnson sees Dale Malacheck, his foreman, and he cannot resist a ranch joke: "Everything working, Dale? Toilet pressure okay?" Mrs. Johnson frown and says reprovingly, "Lyndon!" He pays no attention. The solemn brown eyes are hungry; they drink, they count, they devour. The 6000-odd acres of hill country which he owns are not land and pasture and stone -- they are him."
The New York Times, July 19, 1971:
In a mood approaching euphoria, President Nixon and his top advisers flew back to Washington today facing a critical stage of world diplomacy, a rash of national strikes and unresolved budgetary problems.
After Reagan, who had to cut a vacation or two short because of "appearances," it has been difficult to find people who concede that presidents might need a vacation, even when politics get crazy. There is still plenty of spin to be found on its benefits, however.
When President Clinton went on vacation in September 1995, he played a bit of golf. One Democratic consultant thought that was a good move for the following year's election. "Golf is the typical suburban game. Those are the swing voters, not just because they swing a golf club but because they swing back and forth and decide elections." The New York Times article that included this dubious quote also offered a history of the "sporting life of the President," which is " always replete with symbolism."