Presidents reveal a lot about themselves through their vacation habits. And that's true for Barack Obama as he makes his annual Christmas jaunt to Hawaii. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]
Every president needs to find his own way to relax and enjoy a respite from the crises and pressures of office. Some have sought solace at their own estates, as I recounted in my 2005 book, From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats. George Washington visited his plantation in Mount Vernon, Va., as often as he could. Thomas Jefferson escaped regularly to his estate at Monticello, Va. Both considered themselves gentlemen-farmers more than anything else, and it showed. They paid careful attention to their properties, down to the type of crops planted and the food provided to their slaves.
More recently, Franklin D. Roosevelt frequently returned to his mansion at Hyde Park, N.Y. He was an American aristocrat, and he relished how his servants and his mother responded to his every whim. FDR also visited a therapeutic center at Warm Springs, Ga., for treatment of polio, which had paralyzed his legs. His struggles to regain the use of his limbs during his "vacations" there spoke volumes about his character and perseverance.
John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton revealed themselves as social animals of the first order. Their vacations, Kennedy at his estate in Hyannisport, Mass., Bush at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, and Clinton at borrowed residences of rich friends on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., were social whirls. They relaxed by being surrounded by friends and family, and each seemed to draw energy from the people in their orbit.
Jimmy Carter preferred the small-town, middle-class life of Plains, Ga. While he was in office, he made a habit of going to church there, visiting Main Street merchants near his farm and mingling with other neighbors that he had known all his life. He still does this today. Returning to his hometown of Plains seemed to reinforce his commitment to his values of faith, family, and country.
Ronald Reagan spent a total of a year of his eight-year presidency at his ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., trying to replicate the lifestyle of a Western landman from the 19th century. His links to Rancho del Cielo reinforced his self-styled image as a Washington outsider.
And George W. Bush spent huge amounts of time at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Like Reagan, he found relaxation in outdoor activities and private family time. He spent many hours clearing trails and removing cedar, demonstrating the kind of rugged individualism he hoped to embody as a leader.
Obama seems more like his predecessor in his choice of getaway than his supporters might have expected. He likes to spend time with his family in seclusion and doesn't engage in endless socializing. Nor does he spend endless hours in meetings or receiving briefings while on his break, as did workaholics like Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. Aides say he tries to keep some balance in his life.
For presidents who don't have their own estates, as with Obama, the furlough can get complicated. Abraham Lincoln, who wasn't wealthy, found solace at the Soldiers' Home, where he lived for a quarter of his presidency, commuting three miles to work at the White House. Clinton didn't have a home of his own so he leased the Martha's Vineyard residences of wealthy supporters. Obama still owns a house in Chicago, but it is in an urban area that is difficult for the Secret Service to protect and his stays there are disruptive to the neighborhood. So Obama goes to Martha's Vineyard and especially Hawaii, where he lived for much of his boyhood and adolescence.
Obama showed some concern about appearances when his staff announced on December 10 that he wouldn't go to Hawaii until the Senate passed the START arms-control treaty with Russia, one of his most important foreign-policy objectives. But he always remained intent on returning to the islands, where he learned the Aloha Spirit of diversity and promoting social harmony. He still has many friends there and enjoys body surfing and lolling on the beach. When asked if Obama would again spend Christmas in Hawaii as he has done for most of his life, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says, "The president is not going on vacation. He's going home."