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By The Way

Vacationer-in-chief: A history of presidential getaways

From ice cream on Martha’s Vineyard to hauling brush on Western ranches, even presidents need to unplug. Some have had a unique way of doing it.
In order: The Obamas disembark Air Force One in Martha's Vineyard in 2009; President Dwight D. Eisenhower putts with his son and grandson at Camp David in 1954; the Clintons and a friend sit down for a barbecue dinner in Moose, Wyo., in 1995; President Jimmy Carter, left, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat are shown in Camp David in 1978. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images; Eisenhower Presidential Library; Doug Mills/AP; Official White House Photo/AP)

The Fourth of July may mark the peak of the U.S. summer travel season, but the president, as usual, will be staying home.

President Biden, a White House official said, will be spending this Independence Day in D.C., at an event with essential workers and military families. He has frequently found a bit of freedom at Camp David or in Wilmington, Del., on other weekends, but he and first lady Jill Biden have made it out to their Rehoboth Beach retreat in their home state just once since he took office.

Vacations change, it turns out, when you become commander in chief.

In the post-World War II era, “they’re never out of touch or out of reach,” explained Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. “They can’t unplug like you and I unplug.”

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., on Aug. 12, 2014. (Pete Souza/The White House/Handout/EPA)

But what presidential getaways provide, said Colleen Shogan, director of the David M. Rubenstein Center for White House History, are “important changes of scenery.” And they are changes of scenery that presidents, historically, really, really like.

The first family needs to appear as relatable, and certainly vacations are relatable to many Americans.
Colleen Shogan, director of the David M. Rubenstein Center for White House History

The list of regularly visited “mobile White Houses,” as Shogan called them, is long: There have been “Little White Houses” (Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman), “Western White Houses” (Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush), “Winter White Houses” (various, most recently Donald Trump), “Summer White Houses” (almost everyone) and more. Each has offered the president a chance to enjoy leisure activities, spend time with family and escape the often stifling White House.

But vacations can have a political angle, too.

“The first family needs to appear as relatable, and certainly vacations are relatable to many Americans,” Shogan said.

Some presidents have taken that calculation to extremes. Bill Clinton, for instance, solicited polling on what trips would be most favorable for his image. For two summers of his first term, the results led him to the hiking and fishing haven of Jackson Hole, Wyo. — despite the fact that Clinton’s outdoorsiness was mostly limited to the golf course.

Either way, the strategy paid off. The Clintons “have done something that is virtually impossible for them to do in Washington,” The Post reported in August 1995, as their first Wyoming trip ended. “They have presented themselves as a supremely normal family.”

Park ranger Linda Olson gives the Clintons and a friend a tour of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming on Aug. 20, 1995. (Doug Mills/AP)

National parks such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton have proved relatable and popular destinations for presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Clinton to Barack Obama, who punctuated his final summer in office with a family tour of Yosemite in 2016. Since national parks are operated by the federal government, they offer surefire security, a concern in presidential travel since John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination in Dallas, Engel said.

Presidential vacations also naturally shifted as train networks sprawled and air travel standardized. And with lengthier trips have come ritual criticism over costs to taxpayers.

It all leaves us a long way from the days of Abraham Lincoln, for whom a summer vacation meant riding a horse four miles north, to meet his family at the government-owned Soldiers’ Home in Northwest D.C.

“He would stay there overnight, and then he would get on a horse and ride to the White House” to work, Shogan recounted.

Still, even in 1862, even though he wasn’t leaving the capital, even Lincoln couldn’t unplug: What the Soldiers’ Home is “known for,” Shogan said, “is that he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation at the cottage.”

Important changes of scenery, indeed. Here are some presidents’ favorites.

Camp David

President Ronald Reagan, left, and Vice President George H.W. Bush ride horses at Camp David in July 1981. (Michael Evans/AP)

When Franklin D. Roosevelt needed a vacation in 1942 but feared German U-boat attacks, he had to ditch his presidential yacht.

“He asked the National Park Service to find a location that would be within a hundred miles of Washington, D.C., that would have a particular climate that would get him out of the heat of Washington in the summertime and, of course, would be private and secure,” Shogan said.

He found it in the woods of Maryland, at a vacation site for federal employees and their families that he affectionately named Shangri-La. A decade later, Dwight D. Eisenhower soberly renamed it Camp David.

From left, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin meet in September 1978 to discuss what would become the Camp David Accords. (AP Photo)

Nearly 80 years later, the exclusive hideaway remains presidents’ most common vacation destination. Tucked inside Catoctin Mountain Park, the camp contains numerous cabins, a bowling alley (added by Eisenhower), a heated swimming pool (added by Nixon), a chapel (commissioned by Reagan), trails, tennis courts, basketball courts, skeet shooting, one golf hole, a movie theater and an arcade where President Biden recently beat his granddaughter in Mario Kart.

“H.W. Bush’s diary entries for when he was at Camp David are hysterical,” Engel said. “... He would invite people to bring their families in, and then he would say, ‘OK, you go play volleyball, you go play tennis, you go skeet shooting. We’re going to meet back here for a campfire,’ because he just loved having people around. Whereas Barack Obama, and to a lesser extent Bill Clinton, wanted more time to decompress on their own.”

President Reagan works on his 1985 State of the Union address in the Aspen Lodge at Camp David. (Pete Souza)

One notable exception for Obama: “He went there for his birthday a lot,” Shogan said. Then-first lady Michelle Obama would invite his longtime friends, “and they would hold a basketball tournament at Camp David. They would divide into teams, and they would play each other.”

Presidents have routinely invited longtime allies to the camp, too — starting with Roosevelt, who fished the creek nearby with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. For world leaders then and now, at work and at play, Camp David cordons off controversy and the outside world.

Hence why most of us will never get to visit.

Florida

Republican presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon stands on a boat owned by his friend Charles Rebozo in Key Biscayne, Fla., in August 1968. (ARTHUR SCHATZ/TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES )

Trump spent little time at Camp David, preferring to golf at his Bedminster, N.J., club or decamp to his Mar-a-Lago resort, in Palm Beach, Fla. Neither vacation spot broke norms, Shogan said: Typically wealthy, presidents have often vacationed at their own posh properties. And they have often vacationed in Florida.

Nixon escaped at least 50 times as president to his Winter White House in Key Biscayne, which was installed with a helipad and came with a private beach. Truman’s Little White House, in Key West, Fla., has a different status marker: It’s the state’s only presidential site.

As Little White House tour guide JP Bacle tells it, Truman had a persistent cough in 1946, and Admiral Chester Nimitz, “the godfather of naval submarines,” recommended he visit the naval base in Key West and stay at the “big house” there. “He comes down here, his cough goes away, he feels better, and he vows to come back,” Bacle said.

President Harry S. Truman sits with his family on the lawn of the Little White House in Key West in December 1949. (Bettmann Archive)

Truman followed through. While in office, Bacle said, “he came here 11 times and spent 175 days, or really about six months of his life, here,” working, taking occasional strolls on the beach and swims in the ocean, and ending his nights with hours-long poker games against everyone from locals to Supreme Court justices. Sometimes he would go into town, casual in a Hawaiian shirt, and wouldn’t be much bothered.

“Today,” Bacle conceded, “it’d be a little bit of a different story.”

The Little White House itself, though, is close to the same, thanks to a restoration effort that’s made it “over 90 percent accurate” to its Truman-era furnishings, according to Bacle.

The house holds history beyond Truman. Eisenhower wrote his 1956 State of the Union address there, Bacle said, while Kennedy used it as the backdrop for a 1961 meeting with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Clinton and Jimmy Carter have both visited since leaving office.

Presidents “have a standing invitation to come whenever they want,” Bacle said. “And if they do come, then, you know, we get everybody out of there.”

Western ranches

President George W. Bush clears cedar at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., on Aug. 9, 2002. (The White House/Getty Images)

In the summer at his Texas ranch, Lyndon B. Johnson’s odd little car would be full of guests and headed straight for the lake. The brakes, the president would shout, weren’t working.

“The poor people who were in the car thought the car was going to sink,” Shogan said. “But, of course, the car would go into the lake and it would simply take off, because it was an amphibious car. And then he would laugh and laugh and laugh, because it was a joke that he loved to play on people.”

Official meetings were held, albeit in lawn chairs. “The ranch was really his homestead,” Shogan said of Johnson. Born on the site in 1908, he was buried there in 1973.

President Lyndon B. Johnson swims with his dog, Yuki, and grandson, Patrick Lyndon Nugent, at his ranch in Stonewall, Tex. (Yoichi Okamoto/LBJ Library)

But Johnson wasn’t the only modern commander in chief with a ranch, nor the only one with a distinct version of vacation leisure. On his own Texas outpost, a couple hours northwest, George W. Bush would challenge staffers, Secret Service agents and other visitors to enter his “100-Degree Club.”

“You had to run three miles at the ranch — and he had it all measured out, what the three-mile loop was — in heat of at least 100 hundred degrees,” Shogan explained. “And if you finished, and you were able to do that, you got a ‘100-Degree Club’ T-shirt that President Bush would give you.”

It was an enjoyable escape from Washington for Bush, and it was easy for the Secret Service to protect. But the hardscrabble scene of a cowboy clearing brush also “fit the political message that he was trying to send, that he was ‘man of the heartland,’” Engel said.

The same image didn’t hurt Johnson, either, nor Ronald Reagan — who, Shogan said, relaxed at his Southern California “Rancho del Cielo” by cutting wood, hauling materials around in a Jeep and constructing a fence.

Northeastern beaches

Vice President George H.W. Bush steers his boat in August 1983 while vacationing in Kennebunkport, Maine. (Cynthia Johnson/Getty Images)

When a president is on Martha’s Vineyard, “the buzz is islandwide,” said A. Bowdoin Van Riper, the research librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

“There’s definitely a ‘Wow, do you s’pose we’ll see the president when we’re out having dinner, or when we go to the fireworks or whatever?’” Van Riper said.

There have been plenty of opportunities. While Ulysses S. Grant visited the Vineyard briefly in 1874, Van Riper said, Clinton and Obama vacationed there nearly every summer of their presidencies. And when they were there, they were influencers.

“The press photographed [Clinton] buying an ice cream at Mad Martha’s, and it did wonders for Mad Martha’s visibility,” Van Riper said. Same for the independent bookstore Bunch of Grapes, which the Democrats each visited as well.

One appeal of the island for presidents is its easily secured “natural perimeter,” Shogan noted.

Kennedy and first lady Jackie Kennedy once made it as far as the Vineyard harbor, Van Riper said, but never came ashore. They preferred to spend their summer vacation time across the water, at the Kennedys’ iconic Cape Cod compound, in Hyannis Port, Mass.

Sen. John F. Kennedy and fiance Jacqueline Bouvier go sailing while on vacation at the Kennedy compound in June 1953 in Hyannis Port, Mass. (Hy Peskin Archive/Getty Images)

To house multiple families, it contained multiple houses — much as the Bushes later amassed in their own family hub, which filled a jutted-out thumb of shoreline in Kennebunkport, Maine. There, in his own “little world,” as Engel put it, George H.W. Bush could just savor being “a normal grandfather.” (He also was known to savor racing the Secret Service in his boat.)

One of the earlier Summer White Houses was Congress Hall, in Cape May, N.J., where Grant, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and, mainly, Benjamin Harrison all spent time. Still a hotel today, it’s just a ferry ride away from Biden’s Rehoboth.

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden purchased their property in 2017, after decades of vacationing in the Delaware seaside town. All the while, until last year’s election, they have been a fixture there.

“I don’t mean this in a condescending way, because he’s obviously the president-elect, but he’s a nice, normal person who would come up and say hello and even remember your name,” Delaware state auditor Kathy McGuiness told The Post in late November. “He’s our Joe.”

President Biden rides a bike at Cape Henlopen State Park in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

As such, there is no indication Biden will become the latest president to stop by the Vineyard. Aside from potentially visiting the Obamas, who bought a home there in 2019, there is little need.

But with its “slower pace of life,” Van Riper said, “I think he’d enjoy it here.”

Story editing by Amanda Finnegan. Copy-editing by Paola Ruano. Designed by Emily Sabens. Design editing by Christine Ashack and Rachel Orr. Photo editing by Haley Hamblin.

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