President Barack Obama’s vacation this month has raised the usual questions about where, when or even if a commander-in-chief should take a break from his job.
But there’s ample precedent for controversy when it comes to presidential vacations, as Lawrence L. Knutson reminds readers in a lavish new coffee-table book, “Away From the White House: Presidential Escapes, Retreats, and Vacations.”
Knutson, a retired Associated Press reporter, saw quite a few presidential vacations up close; he covered every president from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush. But Knutson’s book takes an even longer historical view, going back to the first commander-in-chief, George Washington.
Washington couldn’t get away from his official duties very much when the nation’s capital was temporarily located in New York. But when the capital moved to another temporary location in Philadelphia, Washington was able to visit his beloved Mount Vernon pretty often. He sometimes went fishing or sightseeing, a precedent that allowed his successors to feel that they might also step away from the pressures of the presidency for a bit.
But John Adams, the second president, established a more unhappy precedent — the national tradition of lambasting presidents for leaving the seat of government. In 1797, Adams stayed in his hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts, from July through October.
“The president’s critics fussed over his absences, and even his friends worried,” Knutson tells readers. Detractors wondered why the president was away so long. “Many other vacationing presidents would face similar questions in years to come,” Knutson writes.
But Adams, sounding a defense that would also be used by future presidents, noted that wherever he was, he was still on the job. “Nothing is done without my advice and direction,” Adams said. “The post goes very rapidly, and I answer by the return of it, so that nothing suffers or is lost.”
When Thomas Jefferson ran against Adams, he benefited from criticisms of Adams for being away from the capital for too long. Even so, once he was elected to the nation’s highest office, Jefferson had no intention of spending his summers in the muggy new capital along the Potomac. He fled to Monticello, his Virginia plantation, during the hottest months, and encouraged members of his cabinet to follow his example and leave Washington, too.
“America’s presidents have been trying to get away from it all for more than two hundred years, and never quite succeeding,” Knutson adds. “The job and its responsibilities follow no matter where they are. But whether they escape to a golf course or a trout stream, a sailboat or a ski slope, vacationing presidents find that time away from the White House can clear the mind, rest the body, restore energy, and perhaps add a touch of humanity to a person’s image.”
That reality points to one of the biggest ironies of our national life. The occupants of the Oval Office often spend their adult lifetimes trying to reach the White House — only to realize, once they get there, that leaving the White House can be a joy all its own.