When presidents go on vacation

Having written about presidents and worked for presidents I can tell you that there are some misconceptions about presidential vacations.  Some things happen like the rest of us.  Some things don’t.

First there is the idea that the president is the boss and can take off when he wants.  Actually, he is at the mercy of other people just as we all are.  For example, he must co-ordinate with the legislative calendar on Capitol Hill.  If he is not in Washington to help lobby his own bills in congress both his legislation and his presidency will suffer.

Likewise, the timing and planning behind visits from foreign Heads of State are calculated well in advance.  If the president cancels a visit in favor of a sudden vacation with the kids to Disney World he can ruin a relationship or trigger an international crisis.  And if the president insists on taking a scheduled vacation when the rest of the world is falling apart he risks a political uproar.

In 1983, when the Soviets shot down a civilian Korean Airlines, Reagan cut short his time at the ranch in California and flew back to the Oval Office to address the nation.

Some people get upset if the president isn’t in the Oval Office with his sleeves rolled up.  But actually the work of a president is making decisions and that process does not stop, not for Eisenhower on the Golf Course, Kennedy at the beach, or Obama on a bicycle.

Woodrow Wilson, who had been the president of Princeton University, and brought an academic mindset to Oval Office decision making, was scandalized by the pace.  He told his wife and daughters that he didn’t have time to think, that he couldn’t even take a walk before making a decision.

The Oval Office was only built in 1909, which means that most presidents never worked there at all.  And today’s West Wing Oval Office was built in 1934 by President Franklin Roosevelt.  Many presidents, such as Richard Nixon, only used it for ceremonial purposes.  He did his real work in a more expansive office in the Old Executive Office Building which is adjacent to the White House mansion.

Some presidents, like George W. Bush, were not paper shufflers.  They got much of their work done through conversations and that could take place anywhere. The staff had to turn it all into paper. When presidents travel their communications network travels with them, as well as a miniature White House staff.

You will hear a lot of people talk about how Air Force One has ushered in a new era of the traveling president.  Not really. American presidents began extensive travel with trains.  At their peak presidential trains crisscrossed the continent and were a virtual traveling White House.  At one time each cabinet member had his own available train.

Presidents have always been criticized for taking time off, beginning with George Washington who often visited Mt. Vernon.  President Obama recently took a lot of hits for taking a vacation in the midst of world crisis but former presidents of both political parties won’t criticize one of their own for getting some rest. “I don’t agree with your politics,” Richard Nixon said to John F. Kennedy, after the latter won the 1960 election, “But I will never criticize you for taking a vacation.”

Perhaps the biggest misconception about presidents is how well informed they are, and how their morning intelligence briefing keeps them in the loop, even while on vacation.

It depends on the president, of course, but almost all of them become isolated in office.  It is the nature of power.  A memo sent to the president is stamped “The President Has Seen” and becomes an official document of government that will one day be seen by the world.  And so staffers who once told their boss everything are reluctant to send information that others will one day see and judge out of context.

While it’s true that because of their security briefings presidents have information that the rest of us don’t have, even on vacation, the fact is that we sometimes have information that they don’t have!  It is a story as old as the Emperor’s Clothes and it is strikingly seen in George W. Bush’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina and the unfolding tragedy in New Orleans. While the whole nation watched as mothers and children were trapped in 90 degree heat on rooftops without water, food or toilets, and an obvious major health crisis was in the making, the president was at his ranch and not to be disturbed. It was a costly mistake.

Having worked on senior staff at the White House I was often astounded and surprised at what the president knew and what he didn’t know.  There just isn’t time for anyone to know everything.

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