Escapes From The White House
When Washington gets to be too much, presidents need to get away. A look at their private worlds
A few weeks after his first inauguration, in 2001, George W. Bush took a stroll on the South Lawn of the White House with a friend. It was a clear, crisp February night; the Washington Monument glowed majestically across the Mall, and the White House was illuminated in all its grandeur. But Bush longed for escape. "Fifteen years ago, I never would have imagined living here," he said. "But it's like living in a museum." People were constantly peering through the iron fences hoping to catch a glimpse of the president or the first lady. He couldn't slip away to a restaurant or a hardware store, he said, without bringing along an entourage of Secret Service agents, military aides, reporters, and photographers. Inside, he found grim-faced armed guards in nearly every corridor. Bush needed to get back to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, he said, as soon as possible, to restore his "perspective" and get away from Washington's bitter atmosphere.
A few weeks later, he started what would become a ritual: visiting Prairie Chapel Ranch. So far, he has spent more than 300 days at his 1,600-acre spread. This may seem like a lot of time away from Washington, but it's also true that no matter where he goes, a president can never truly free himself from the burdens of office.
Bush's getaway habits mirror those of many of his predecessors. Virtually every one had a private hideaway, retreat, or family home where he could go to relax and find a bit of peace. These retreats are also where they have made some momentous decisions, including Bush's setting the early course of the war on terrorism and Franklin Roosevelt's decision to proceed with the development of the atomic bomb.
American presidents tend to reveal themselves in their private worlds in unique ways. To peer into the lives of the presidents at their retreats is to see each man as he really was, without the facades that so many of them created to obscure their private selves. What emerges is a series of portraits of real human beings, subject to self-doubt and overconfidence, physical afflictions and exhaustion, sorrow and heartache, depression and melancholy, self-indulgence and laziness--in short, the very same weaknesses and problems that affect the rest of us. (All this is described in a new book, From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats, published by Hyperion this week.)
Lazy days. Many of the presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and George W. Bush, were wealthy individuals who had their own estates. Others, unblessed by personal fortunes, like Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, borrowed or rented the homes of rich friends or supporters or stayed at hotels or resorts.
One fact that may come as a surprise is the frequency with which presidents have made their escapes. Washington and Jefferson got away to their Virginia plantations for weeks at a time. Abraham Lincoln lived at the Soldiers' Home, a residence for injured Union troops during the Civil War, and, for a quarter of his presidency, commuted 3 miles to the White House. Every summer, from 1902 through 1908, Theodore Roosevelt moved the functions of the executive branch to his family estate at Sagamore Hill, N.Y.