Highs and Lows of Presidential Vacations

The criticism Obama is absorbing over his trip are small potatoes compared to some presidential trips.


Everyone wants a vacation to be as relaxing and carefree as possible. But any vacationer who has had a flight canceled, a credit card stolen, or a storm disrupt time at the beach knows that things don't always go smoothly. And that applies to presidents of the United States, too. As President Obama begins his stay on Martha's Vineyard, it seems like a good time to review the way some presidential holidays go well, and some go badly—just as they do for everyone else. I've gleaned these nuggets from my book From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats:

[Read: Obama takes a pounding from GOP over vacation.]

Some Lows

—It can't get much worse that this. On Sept. 24, 1955, Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack while on vacation in Denver. Ike, 64, spent seven weeks in a Denver hospital, then had an extended convalescence at his Gettysburg, Pa. farm. He recovered and went on to win a second term in 1956.

[See photos of presidents on vacation through the years.]

—It was supposed to be a relaxing family vacation at Martha's Vineyard for Bill and Hillary Clinton and their daughter Chelsea in August 1998. But it turned into disaster. The day before departure Bill admitted publicly to having an affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. During their "holiday," the first couple barely spoke, and the president slept on a couch. During that miserable week, President Clinton ordered air strikes against terrorist Osama bin Laden in an attack that critics said was designed to divert attention from his personal problems. Clinton denied it.

—George W. Bush's vacation at his Texas ranch in 2005 ended with a major embarrassment. He didn't seem to immediately grasp the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and seemed aloof and insensitive to the vast human cost of the storm. He cut short his holiday to fly over the scene of devastation in Air Force One, but by then the damage was done to his reputation as an effective manager and an empathetic leader.

[Read: Vacationing Obama could end up like George Bush.]

Some Highs

—Franklin Roosevelt took great solace in lengthy visits to his family estate at Hyde Park, N.Y. He kept up his stamp collection, did a lot of reading, and enjoyed the lovely rural landscapes around the Hudson River. He also spent many pleasant days and evenings with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It was at Hyde Park, with cigars for Churchill, cigarettes for FDR, and strong drink for both of them, that the two leaders planned the development of the atomic bomb.

[Read Washington Whispers: Republicans ridicule Obama's Martha's Vineyard Vacation.]

—Harry Truman loved his retreat at Key West, Florida. He took over the house of the commander of a submarine base and spent many blissful days sunning himself on the beach, playing poker, drinking bourbon, and trading gossip with his pals, often clad in gaudy tropical shirts.

—John F. Kennedy's vacations at his family retreat in Hyannisport, Massachusetts were usually blissful interludes. He spent lots of time cruising on the presidential yacht and enjoying the company of his children, Caroline and John, Jr.

—Ronald Reagan loved his ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif. and went there as often as he could. He spent countless hours riding horses, mending fences, and cutting brush as he attempted to replicate the lifestyle of a 19th Century Western landman. He and his wife Nancy kept the ranch mostly to themselves and rarely invited overnight guests.

[See photos of Reagan.]

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