Several Presidents Took Lumps For Their Vacations

On Thursday, President Obama is due to start his 10-day summer vacation in Martha's Vineyard. Taking a vacation at such an upscale location while the country's economic woes continue has resulted in criticism of the president. But Obama is not the first U.S. president to take some lumps over his choice of a vacation getaway. Melissa Block speaks with U.S. News and World Report White House correspondent Kenneth Walsh about other U.S. presidents and their vacations. Walsh is also the author of the book From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

Tomorrow, President Obama is scheduled to fly to the island of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts for a 10 day vacation. The First Family will be renting a 28 acre estate, as they have for the past two summers.

The President's upcoming retreat has drawn sharp criticism and not just from his Republican opponents. Liberal columnist Colbert King wrote in the Washington Post, this is no time for the President to dwell in splendid seclusion among the rich and famous. What is he thinking?

Well, for a little perspective on the presidential vacation, I'm joined by Kenneth Walsh. He's author of the book, "From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats."

Welcome to the program.

KENNETH WALSH: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And of course, this upcoming vacation for President Obama comes at a time of economic hardship. The criticism here is it sends the wrong message. The upticks on this are really bad.

WALSH: Yes. Well, actually, just about every summer, a president goes on vacation and the opposition always has something bad to say about it. It doesn't matter if it's a Democrat or a Republican. It's the same dynamic.

Most Americans are very understanding of the need of a President to get away and to take a break and to have a vacation. Where the problem comes for presidents is if they look like they're indulging themselves when the country is having hard times economically and that's exactly where President Obama is now.

BLOCK: There's also the risk, and we've seen this before, of a president being away on vacation and detached during a disaster. We saw this, of course, with President Bush after Hurricane Katrina. There was that image of him looking down from above as he flew over New Orleans.

WALSH: Right. And, of course, that was really a turning point in President Bush's time in office because his advisors said then and say now that he never really recovered the confidence of the country because he did seem to be not really focused on it and that's a big problem during a crisis time. And there's a history we have in our country of presidents going on vacation and having a crisis hit. There's Hurricane Katrina.

There's sort of the ongoing economic crisis we're in now and, in that situation, the parallel is really with President Bush, the father, because President Bush, the father, went to Kennebunkport, Maine. We were having a recession and he was peppered with questions about how he could be riding around on his speed boat and playing golf while the country was living through hard times.

He was very stubborn about it. He sort of came back at the media, the press, and said, look, this is where I relax. I work hard, I need some rest and relaxation and I'm going to continue to do what I always do when I'm here.

And of course, he didn't win reelection. Now, it wasn't just because of that, but it was part of a whole subtext that President Bush sort of was not as in tune with the problems of the country as he should be.

BLOCK: Kenneth Walsh, how far back does criticism of the presidential vacation go? What were you able to find?

WALSH: It goes back almost to the very beginning of the Republic. It was really John Adams, our second President, who took a lot of criticism. He went to his home in Quincy, Massachusetts, as often as he could and in 1799, going way back, he went to Quincy for eight months of that year.

It was a number of reasons why John Adams was gone so long. One is that he needed a break from his official duties. Another, that his wife was very sick and he wanted to care for her. Another reason was that, at that time, Washington came down with outbreaks of yellow fever and other diseases in the summer and so a lot of people wanted to get away in the summer because Washington is essentially built on a swamp.

Now, being away for eight months does not just cover the summer, so obviously, he was away for more than just a period where the outbreaks of disease would occur. But while he was away, his adversaries in Washington, in Congress almost got us into a war with France, so it did work against him. And he had to come back, but he was very heavily criticized for being absent, basically.

That's really the most dramatic example of a president being away on vacation for a very, very long time. As I said, I don't think anyone's ever going to reach that level that John Adams did.

BLOCK: Kenneth Walsh, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

WALSH: Thank you.

BLOCK: Kenneth Walsh is chief White House correspondent with US News and World Report. His book is "From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of Presidents and Their Retreats."

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