Profound Questions: Can the President Take a Week Off?
Originally published July 27, 2010
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
You might recall that total jerk of a president who spent so much time in Texas playing cowboy. Twenty-five percent of his presidency on his ranch! During a war, no less!
But Lyndon Johnson needed to kick back. After a hard week of dropping f-bombs and carpet bombs, you need to chill out with some B.J. Thomas on the jukebox, a herd of Herefords and a glowing hot cattle brand. If animal husbandry helps a man relax, what's the harm? Isn't the president -- the hardest working man in show business -- entitled to a little vacation?
This spat comes up every year, and your opinion pivots on whether you like the guy. Fans have no problem with our leader spending a few weeks in flip flops, and haters who despise his work demand that he work around the clock.
There wasn't any quandary in days of yore, when time away from the capital was mostly for escaping a pus-filled death. George Washington would have loved convenient access to the cheesesteak shops of 1793 Philadelphia, as fresh rolls are easier on the dentures. But yellow fever was turning much of the city's populace into mush. So it was off to a snazzy rental home in nearby Germantown, far from the dying crowd, where Martha could do some light gardening and George could take a stroll without tripping over piles of decaying corpses. The Deshler-Morris house stands today as the oldest existing presidential summer rental -- the Jersey shore, without crossing the Delaware, and fewer cigarette filters between your toes.
The wise Founders then moved the capital to a malarial swamp, so no one begrudged a guy heading to the mountains for a few months. D.C. has since been sanitized for their protection, but presidents still need to get away.
Lincoln couldn't sneak back to Illinois, but each summer, Mule Train One hauled furnishings and Mary Todd's pill regimen three miles north to the Soldiers' Home. It was a nice empty mansion in commuting distance of downtown; there he could enjoy hilltop breezes, avoid sycophants, and sip his morning coffee while watching soldiers' funerals at the cemetery next door. You know, the men he had sent to their deaths. And that was still more carefree than the White House.
With the crumbling world on his shoulders, FDR could at least make it back to his humble New York mansion. But it wasn't relaxing enough, so he built a second, handicapped-accessible home on his sprawling property -- Top Cottage, a place to get away from the formal demands of entertaining society folk and pretending he wasn't crippled. He also made sure that Eleanor had her own home (Val-Kill) on the property to reduce some of the stress of cheating on her mercilessly. And that whole arrangement still wasn't relaxing enough, so he spent a lot of time at his mountain home in Georgia. It was a retreat from his retreat from his retreat.
The point is, even the greats need a break. You can see on their faces what the job does to them, so it's hard to begrudge the POTUS a week without a necktie. It's a working vacation, as no rum drink can mellow out that morning's national security briefing. It can always be cut short. But the need is there. The real question to answer is where.
Camp David? Too close to home. Family compounds? Not everyone is going to have them, and we want to plan a vacation any president can enjoy. It's not easy, because the presidency causes problems.
Road trips are out. Thomas Jefferson loved Natural Bridge, Va. -- a stunning rock structure on the spine of the Shenandoah Mountains -- and purchased the property for about $2.50. The lot has since been improved. Today, for only $27.50, a day-tripper from D.C. can see the rock formation, and a foam replica of Stonehenge, and a sculpture park of dinosaurs eating Union soldiers. Any patriot with a Jeffersonian interest in science, architecture and history should visit. But a presidential visit to Natural Bridge -- or any tourist hotspot, for that matter -- would shut it down. His security footprint would choke the roads and keep hundreds of doe-eyed children from learning about the important role velociraptors played in the Civil War. It would be undemocratic.
We need something isolated, like an island. But not just any island. Martha's Vineyard is easier on the Secret Service, but it comes at a terrible price: you are known as the kind of person who vacations in Martha's Vineyard. Public opinion takes no vacations, and you cannot be a man of the people while throwing champagne in the face of the insolent butler who smudged your boat shoes. Harry Truman had the right idea, chilling out in earthier Key West -- but there was much less vomiting and public nudity in Key West those days, even when Hemingway was in town.
So we're taking the public out of the picture: no rubbing of elbows, no tourist crowds, no concerns about being photographed wearing shorts. Remember, we want a relaxed, well-rested president when the Chinese invade, and a vacation spent worrying about image and safety is no vacation at all. There can't be a public presence.
Finally, we want it tropical. Disaster strikes any time of year, so the president needs the flexibility to vacation whenever he can. Our destination needs all-year vacation weather.
It all adds up to Guantanamo Bay. It's a short hop from Washington; the security is impeccable; there's no snob factor; there's no bigfooting of John Q. Public. The best thing for the president -- for the country, really -- is a government-owned mini-Sandals for friends and family.
The current residents will have to be moved, but that's been the hope for some time. And while this column can't solve every problem, we do hear that Yucca Mountain is available. Just putting it out there.