Presidents have complained about the burdens of office from the beginning of the Republic.
George Washington fretted about "the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me." Thomas Jefferson described the presidency as "a place of splendid misery." Andrew Jackson saw the office as "dignified slavery." Warren Harding said, "It's Hell! No other word to describe it." Harry Truman called the White House "the great white jail." John F. Kennedy told Dwight Eisenhower, his predecessor, "No one knows how tough this job is until after he has been in it for a few months." Ike readily agreed. Lyndon Johnson complained, "The presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands." George W. Bush remarked, "Whatever shortcomings you have, people are going to notice them, and whatever strengths you have, you're going to need them."
Yet the burdens of the presidency are manageable, and each chief executive finds his own ways to ease the stress. It turns out that the most common means of coping is for a president to escape from the confines, protocols, routines, and pressures of the White House altogether, to a retreat, hideaway, or personal home. Many of the presidents were wealthy individuals who had their own estates; others borrowed or rented the homes of rich friends or supporters or stayed at hotels or resorts.
In each case, these havens have conveyed the distinctive personalities and character of America's leaders, from George Washington to George W. Bush.
Like so many ordinary Americans, presidents find that getting away from the job is a way to rejuvenate themselves and to connect with what is real and truly important in their lives. In fact, one irony of presidential life is that our leaders try so hard to reach the White House, and then, once they win the right to live there, they try equally hard to escape its confines.
"I loved the White House," Bill Clinton told me. "But even so, once in a while you just need to physically get out of Washington and get back into America and kind of clear your head....It's one of the reasons that taking regular vacations is so important."
The extent to which presidents have taken these "sanity breaks" and created their own habitats is one of the enduring but largely unexamined facets of American government. Washington and Jefferson got away to their estates in Virginia for weeks at a time. John Adams spent five to seven months annually at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. James Madison fled to his central Virginia estate at Montpelier for three to four months every summer and fall. Abraham Lincoln lived at the Soldiers' Home, a residence for injured soldiers during the Civil War, and commuted three miles to his office at the White House for one-quarter of his presidency. Theodore Roosevelt spent most of his presidential summers at Sagamore Hill, on Long Island, New York, mixing work and play in pursuit of "the strenuous life."
Franklin Roosevelt made 134 trips home, encompassing more than 500 days at Hyde Park, New York, and spent many additional weeks at a health resort in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he received treatments for polio. Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan each spent a year of their eight-year terms at their private getaways—Ike at his Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, farm and Reagan at his ranch in Santa Barbara, California. After taking office in January 2001, George W. Bush enjoyed nine months of his first four-year term at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
To examine the lives of the presidents at their retreats is to see each man as he really was, without the façades 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, all the weaknesses and problems that affect the rest of us.
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A senior aide recalls strolling on the South Lawn of the White House with George W. Bush one evening a few weeks after his inauguration. It was a clear, crisp February night; the Washington Monument glowed majestically across the Mall, and the White House was illuminated in all its glamour. But Bush longed for escape. He took in the panorama of official Washington, shook his head, and said, "Fifteen years ago I never would have imagined living here....But it's like living in a museum. You can’t really go out." The grounds are heavily protected, he explained, and people are constantly peering through the wrought-iron fences hoping to catch a glimpse of the president or the First Lady. Inside, there are grim-faced armed guards in nearly every corridor. Even walking the dog or taking a jog becomes a spectator sport, and a president can't go out for dinner and a movie or visit a hardware store without bringing along an entourage of Secret Service agents, military aides, reporters, and photographers.
Reflecting on his new life, Bush said he needed to get back to Crawford, Texas, and his Prairie Chapel Ranch as soon as he could, to put things into better perspective. A few weeks later, he started what would become a ritual, conducted every few weeks during his presidency: visiting his ranch for some R & R. In an interview for this book conducted at his main ranch house in December 2003, Bush told me, "In Washington, which is an exciting place to be, life is hectic and it's full and there's a lot of decision making. And then I can come out here and, although you know you're still the president and there's daily briefs and occasionally there's decisions to be made, you're able to get a perspective about the job, the current events. I mean, one of the things that's very important for a president is to maintain a vision and see where the world is headed. This helps me maintain perspective....I love to be outdoors [and] I spend a lot of time outdoors here....You need to get your batteries recharged."
After spending many summers at his parents' capacious home on the cool, rocky coast of Maine, Bush purchased his own spread in 1999. It was in a completely different setting that reflected his self-perception and the image he wanted to project. The 1,600-acre property on the rolling prairie of central Texas is a beautiful tract in its own right but an acquired taste for many Americans, who might not take kindly to the overwhelming summer heat and the isolation of the place. As historian Doug Brinkley points out, the ranch, located in the tiny town of Crawford not far from Waco, is in the heart of the Bible Belt and reflects the conservative, small-town values that Bush feels he embodies and that he wants voters to identify him with. Bush wishes to reinforce perceptions that he is a rough-hewn Texan who enjoys manual labor. Seeing the grinning president in a sweat-soaked shirt cutting cedar on a 100-degree August afternoonleaves no doubt that his delight in ranch pursuits is genuine.
Those who have seen the presidents up close understand the dynamic of breaking away from the West Wing. "Washington is not real," says Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster and former adviser to Bill Clinton. "I assume leaders are better for their ability to escape it."
"It tells you about their personality and character," says presidential historian Robert Dallek. "And it gives you a sense of their roots."
Each president tends to go to a place that is "an extension of themselves," observes Brinkley. "These retreats will eventually be national historic sites and interpretive centers for the way the presidents really lived."
Adds Geoff Garin, a Washington pollster and former adviser to Clinton’s White House: "You can learn a lot about a president by how he relaxes. Just think of Kennedy on his sailboat. It helped burnish him as hale and hearty, and a family man....You got some really great pictures of Ronald Reagan at his ranch, clearing brush, riding horses, etc. For Bill Clinton, there was a sort of a salon quality to his vacations."
Clinton went so far as to analyze polls to help determine where to go. Dick Morris, his public-opinion analyst, found that visiting a national park would be more acceptable to middle Americans than vacationing with the rich and famous on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, which Clinton preferred. The result: Clinton went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, near Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks during the summer in both 1995 and 1996, his reelection year. Because Clinton didn’t have a home of his own—he never had the money to invest in one during his many years as Arkansas governor—he was forced to borrow the often opulent residences of friends for his escapes. This gave his vacations a rambling and rootless quality.
In contrast, even though Lyndon Johnson was a Washington insider and former Senate Democratic leader, as president he emphasized his Texas background with frequent trips to his ranch on the Pedernales River. LBJ wanted voters to know he had roots outside the capital.
Similarly, Jimmy Carter used his peanut farm in Plains, Georgia, to present a down-to-earth, non-Washington image and to reconnect with his past. While he was in office, Carter criticized Washington as an island "isolated from the mainstream of our nation's life."
Ronald Reagan also cultivated his reputation as a Washington outsider. He tried to recreate the lifestyle of an independent Western landman at his Santa Barbara, California, ranch, where he would, famously, ride horses, chop wood, and clear brush. "It was open space and freedom and contact with reality," observes Ken Khachigian, former speechwriter for both Reagan and Richard Nixon. "It was analogous to people who do weekend gardening. It was relaxing. It was mindless—and I'm not being critical. It wasn't anything you had to do a lot of thinking about. It was the adult equivalent of shooting hoops or throwing a ball around. It was also the exercise. Some presidents, like Reagan, did it for physical upkeep."
In their getaway habits, our presidents have been in tune with larger trends among the American people. "Think, for a moment," writes historian Cindy S. Aron, "of the range of vacations that we indulge in today: the grueling week-long backpacking trek, the trip to Disney World, the quiet week at a rented seashore cottage, the European tour, the hunting and camping expedition, the splurge at a posh resort, the visit to relatives in another part of the country, the golfing holiday, the road trip in the Winnebago, the time at a health spa. Vacations announce much about the vacationer—not only class status and economic standing but personal aspirations and private goals. More than just yearly rituals in which we connect with friends and family, vacations are also exercises in self-definition. In affording time away from the demands of everyday life, vacations disclose what people choose to do rather than are required to do."
For most of the early history of the United States, vacations were suspect for most Americans. It was only during the early decades of the 20th century that the practice of vacationing spread beyond the privileged classes to an increasingly prosperous Middle America and was seen as essential to health and well-being. And it was only during the Depression, in the 1930s, that most working-class Americans won the right to an annual paid summer vacation, even though few could afford to take a leisure trip. Aron calls this process the "democratization of vacationing."
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Presidents are sometimes criticized by their political adversaries for spending too much time away from the White House. George Herbert Walker Bush paid a political price, for example, for vacationing at his estate in Maine during a recession when many Americans were losing their jobs. "People were angry in 1992," says Greenberg. "And they saw the president on the golf course, etc. It reinforced the sense of him being out of touch." The Democrats helped to fuel this image by running ads featuring Bush in a golf cart.
But this was the exception. Says Republican pollster Bill McInturff: "People feel that the president lives a very different life than the rest of us do. People are not shocked that presidents have money and that they hang around with rich friends or go to Martha's Vineyard like Clinton did. If the country is going well, and people's lives are going well, it's okay. If things are bad and people feel that a president is not doing his job, that’s a different story."
Democratic pollster Garin adds: "Americans believe everybody deserves a vacation, and they think the president brings 'the store' with him wherever he goes and he always lives above the store. People cut the president a helluva lot of slack."
Over the years, America's major presidents, such as George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt, established most of the lasting traditions for getting away from the capital. But even the less historically significant chief executives set patterns that offered insight into their character and priorities.
James Madison, who served from 1809 to 1817, considered his estate at Montpelier in Virginia not only a refuge from the pressures of office but also a personal rehabilitation center. Madison was always fearful about his health, and felt that the federal city of Washington bred disease and lethargy with its swampy, humid climate in the summer, so he left the capital frequently. But he was also a workaholic and made some important decisions at his getaway, as most presidents do. In the summer of 1811, for example, Madison decided that another war with Great Britain was inevitable because of London’s violations of U.S. maritime rights, including the seizing of American sailors.
Through the next two centuries, presidents experienced a common need to escape from the capital even if the journey home was arduous and time consuming. When he took office in 1829, Andrew Jackson planned to visit his thousand-acre estate at the Hermitage outside Nashville every other summer. He would use one of two routes, both difficult because of bad roads and frequent stormy weather—overland via Virginia and Tennessee, or through Maryland and West Virginia and then south over the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers. The trip covered a thousand miles and took three or four weeks each way, but Jackson still found the journey home worthwhile even though he was unable to visit as much as he intended.
James Garfield, a longtime Republican representative from Ohio, was preparing to take a vacation at the Jersey Shore about four months after he took office when, on July 2, 1881, he was shot by a deranged office seeker in the railroad station in Washington. Garfield remained close to death in the capital for two months, at which time his doctors decided to move him to the Shore, where they thought he might recuperate more rapidly. On September 6, 1881, he took a train from Washington to the beachfront home of Charles Francklyn in Long Branch, New Jersey. A special spur at Elberon had been constructed directly to the house to accommodate the critically ill president, but he developed an infection and died in Long Branch on September 19, 1881.
Chester Arthur, his successor, had expected to remain in relative obscurity as vice president and wasn't sure he was up to the job as the nation's 21st president. A New York lawyer who rose in the Republican party as a prodigious fund-raiser, he achieved relatively little. He suffered from what was then termed Bright's disease, a kidney disorder that causes headaches, fever, and fatigue, and he needed as much rest as he could get. As a result, his periodic trips out of the capital were mostly therapeutic. In 1882, he sought the cool breezes and leisurely pace of his rich friends' homes in Rhode Island. In the spring of 1883, he visited northern Florida, but the heat and humidity did not suit him. In fact, he developed a high fever and came close to death, which was kept secret. Several newspapers criticized him for laziness, but Arthur felt that revealing his health problems would be worse for his image than his reputation for indolence.
Grover Cleveland was the first president to be married at the White House, and his desire for privacy was acute. (He was also unusual because he was elected to two nonconsecutive terms, meaning that historians count him as president twice. The history books refer to 43 presidents, but there were actually only 42 men who held the title.) After Cleveland took Frances Folsom as his bride in 1886, the couple immediately left for a honeymoon at a secluded resort in the western Maryland countryside. Unfortunately for them, a trainload of reporters showed up and tried to invade their privacy. Cleveland referred to the correspondents as "animals and nuisances." The episode showed why presidents prefer to vacation or relax at their own estates, which can be more easily policed than resorts or other public places.
After his honeymoon, Cleveland worked at the White House but actually lived much of the time during his first term at a secluded house he owned on 23 acres in northern Washington. Frances named the estate Oak View. Reporters called it Red Top, for the color of the roof on the main house. "Oak View or Red Top, it was not intended as a summer or vacation getaway spot like Camp David and others frequented by twentieth-century presidents," writes author H. Paul Jeffers. "It was meant to be a year-round retreat. A safe haven from the nosy and noisome minions of the press, it would become a full-fledged farm with a cow named Grace. In due course Frances, an animal lover, assembled a menagerie of dogs, chickens, ducks, quail, foxes, kittens, and even some white rats. A coach house and a large kitchen garden were constructed. The stable and the one at the White House accommodated five horses....More than a hundred years after the dream hideaway became a reality, Red Top claims a unique niche in the history of Cleveland's presidency. It was the only house in the nation’s capital to be used by a president as a year-round alternative to living in the White House."
Woodrow Wilson had no home outside the White House during his presidency, and for his first summer, in 1913, he and his wife, Ellen, went with their daughters to an artists' colony, Haarlachen, in Cornish, New Hampshire. (Mrs. Wilson was a painter of some renown.) They stayed at Haarlachen for eight days in July. In other years, Wilson and his family went to Sea Girt, New Jersey; Long Branch, New Jersey; and Pass Christian, Mississippi.
Warren Harding, Wilson's successor, vacationed frequently during his two and a half years in office, and enjoyed railroad trips around the country. In July 1921, he went on a woodsy retreat to a Maryland spot called Nature's Laboratory. Harding's companions included industrialists Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone (who hosted the event) and inventor Thomas Edison.
Calvin Coolidge, who succeeded Harding after his predecessor's death in 1923, spent part of his presidential summers fishing and relaxing in Vermont, Massachusetts, the Adirondack Mountains of New York, the Black Hills of South Dakota, and Wisconsin. "In the pre-air-conditioning era, before the 1950s, Washington was a cesspool of heat and humidity and mosquitoes," historian Doug Brinkley said. "A president had to get away for his health and his sanity."
Herbert Hoover had a retreat built in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains in 1929, his first year as president. He paid for the land himself and called it Camp Rapidan. Hoover initially said he wanted a hideaway within 100 miles of the White House where the trout fishing was good. He had one other stipulation: The retreat needed to be at least 2,500 feet above sea level in order to reduce the mosquito population.
The land was cleared by the military and a dozen cabins were built, along with riding stables and barracks for the soldiers who would protect the commander in chief. The president's cabin was roomy, with a big stone fireplace in the living room, a dining area, two bedrooms, and a porch that overlooked trout streams. Hoover made the two-hour drive there as often as he could, mostly on weekends. He liked to fish alone, sometimes wearing a suit and tie with hip boots.
He envisioned the 164-acre property as a permanent retreat for presidents, and he donated it to the government when he left office after one disastrous term. It is now part of Shenandoah National Park. But its distance from the White House, nearly 100 miles to the southwest, was considered impractical, and subsequent presidents didn’t like the area’s heat and humidity or its association with the unpopular Hoover. Camp David, in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, eventually came to serve as the official year-round hideaway that Hoover tried to create, and it has been the scene of many important decisions.
Yet it was at their private properties, each tailored to their individual needs and tastes, that America's presidents felt they could truly relax and be themselves. In addition, these refuges have played an important role in our history from the beginning of the Republic.
Award-winning White House correspondent and presidential historian
Kenneth T. Walsh’s latest book,
Celebrity in Chief
A History of the Presidents and the culture of stardom
A comprehensive look at the history of America’s presidents
as “celebrities in chief”
since the beginning of the Republic.