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LIANE HANSEN, host:

There's no secret about where the leader of the free world is spending most of his vacation time this August. As is his custom, President Bush is at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Except for an occasional foray to attend a political fundraiser or to show up for a photo-op before a friendly crowd, presidential retreats from Washington are a time-honored tradition.

And we sure don't blame them. Swampy Washington is no place to spend August. For a vicarious sense of what it's like to vacation like a President on a rainy morning this past week, we took a short drive down along the Potomac River to Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of America's first president.

Joining us on the back porch of George Washington's estate was U.S. News & World Report's White House correspondent, Kenneth Walsh. His new book is From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of Presidents and Their Retreats. He told us how Washington would spend his time at Mount Vernon.

Mr. KENNETH WALSH (Journalist/Author): He really liked to just sort of sit here and relax. He liked to sit in the chair, often with kids from the area, his family members, and just sort of unwind, and that's what a lot of presidents want to do when they get away from Washington to their homes.

HANSEN: Even though we're only some 50 miles from the center of Washington, you can't really say that Washington was escaping Washington, because Washington was not the nation's capital yet.

Mr. WALSH: That's right. It wasn't the capital. It was New York and Philadelphia in the early days of the Republic. But he was trying to escape the burdens of office and the pressures and the crises that every president has to face, and it's interesting that from the very beginning, presidents have felt this need for normalcy.

Washington found it here at Mount Vernon, but every president has tried to find this escape, and that's one of the poignant things I found about this. Whenever a president goes away on vacation or what they call working vacations, they can never really truly escape from the job, and I think over the years, while critics criticize presidents, including President Bush today, for getting away to his ranch in Crawford, Texas - quite a lot - I think Americans tend to be pretty tolerant, and they understand that presidents need to get this escape.

HANSEN: Back in the days before Air Force One, Washington had to travel for days to get to Mount Vernon. For Abraham Lincoln, America's 16th president, getting from his office to a favorite get-away spot was a big easier. But the job, and his life, was terribly burdensome.

Mr. WALSH: When he first became president, he not only was suffering these terrible reverses in the Civil War - the federal forces were losing battles, the Confederates were on the march - but he also lost his son, who died when he first became president. So you had this personal need to escape and to find some solace, in addition to escaping the burdens of office.

So Lincoln was recommended this place called the Soldiers Home, which was a facility designed for convalescing soldiers in that era, and he visited - and it's only about three miles from the White House. So what he would do is he would commute and spend the night, particularly in the summers, then go back to the White House in the morning.

And in the beginning, there wasn't nearly the security consciousness that we might have expected from a president during a war. Lincoln would commute with just one or two cavalry-mounted soldiers with him. He would either ride a horse or be in a carriage, and there was one incident where he arrived back at the Soldiers Home, and he didn't have his famous stove-pipe hat on, and the next morning it was found with a bullet hole in it, on the route from the White House.

And so after this time, his military advisers felt that he could no longer just be traveling in such a cavalier way, so they accompanied him with a detachment of cavalry. And the famous poet Walt Whitman was on the route and would see Lincoln commuting to and fro, and would greet him or wave at him. And so it was quite a sight to see this cavalry detachment as the president was commuting.

HANSEN: Big decisions have had to be made by presidents when they're on vacation, particularly in modern times.

Mr. WALSH: Right, exactly. Well, among the examples of big decisions made by presidents when they're away, Franklin Roosevelt made some very important decisions about the endgame of World War II, about the invasion of Normandy, both at Hyde Park and at Camp David, which is the institutional retreat of presidents that Franklin Roosevelt created - he called it Shangri-la - up in the mountains, the Catoctin mountains of Maryland.

He met with Winston Churchill, both at Hyde park, his home, and in Shangri-la, now Camp David. And they actually also planned the development of the atomic bomb, which is one of the most important decisions a president has ever made, while they were up relaxing up in Hyde Park and Camp David. So, you know, you can't get much more historically important than that.

HANSEN: Is there kind of a hierarchy of invitation involved? If you get an invitation to Camp David, is it as good or not as good as invitation to, say, Crawford?

Mr. WALSH: It varies with the president. There's no invitation as prized in President Bush's administration today than an invitation to Crawford. Beyond the White House, beyond Camp David, President Bush feels that Crawford is his home, and as he told me when I interviewed him about this, he feels like inviting someone to his home is the most important of all invitations he could extend.

So there are some foreign leaders - not many, but some - who he's invited to Crawford. Vladimir Putin from Russia, the leaders of Italy and China and Saudi Arabia he's had down there. But he feels that this is sort of a perk he can offer, and that it'll help him sort of be more persuasive, and also recognize a special relationship he might have with somebody.

Other presidents have not been as open with having people at their homes. President Reagan had a ranch in Santa Barbara, California, but he used that ranch as a retreat to be with his wife, Nancy. That's really what he wanted to do there.

He wanted to be in the outdoors, and he wanted to have the ranch in Santa Barbara as an escape, a sanctuary more or less, for him and his wife. He did not have staff there overnight very often. In fact, they didn't often have their children there.

But the Reagans just really felt that the ranch at Santa Barbara, which they called the Ranch in the Sky, Rancho del Cielo, when controversies would erupt and President Reagan did not want to return to Washington, his staff would be nervous about the perception, and he'd say, you know, the longer I spend at my ranch, the longer I'm going to live. And that was kind of hard for people to argue with when they were telling him to go home.

HANSEN: Why did you decide, as a White House correspondent, that a book on their retreats was necessary?

Mr. WALSH: Well, as a White House correspondent, you're always looking for new ways to see presidents, the people you cover. You're trying to look for new prisms through which to see them and to get some insights in them, and it struck me that presidents were away so much, and often they struggled so hard to get into the White House, and once they got there they were desperate to get away from the place.

And so I wanted to sort of examine that dynamic, why this was so important to them. And then this notion was also that - what is a president like in his natural habitat, when he lets his guard down, when he's beyond the facades and the spin and the public relations of the White House?

And so that was the other part of it, to see what the presidents were like in their natural habitats, when they could be themselves. And so it seemed to me that when they got to their homes and their personal sanctuaries, more or less, that that's where you could see them as they really are.

HANSEN: Kenneth Walsh is the author of From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats. Kenneth Walsh is the chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. Thanks very much for joining us on the piazza of Mount Vernon, the retreat of our first president.

Mr. WALSH: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, Holiday Road)

HANSEN: To read an excerpt of Kenneth Walsh's new book, go to our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of song, Holiday Road)

Mr. LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM (Singer): (Singing) I found out long ago, it's a long way down the holiday road. Holiday road. Holiday road.

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick. Take a ride on the West Coast kick. Holiday road. Holiday road. Holiday road. Holiday road.

I found out long ago, it's a long way down the holiday road...

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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