From Mount Vernon to Crawford:
A History of Presidents and Their Retreats
By Kenneth T. Walsh: 311 pages (2005); Hyperion BooksReviewed by Dick Wilson
We pay a lot of attention to the private lives of our presidents. We know how they live, we know where they live and we know where they go to relax. When they're doing the people's business, we think of them as 'in the White House,' but presidents do a surprising amount of work in places where they go to get away from the White House and the pressures of the presidency.
Presidents since George Washington have exercised that most basic of American rights: the Right to a Vacation. Washington had his Mount Vernon, George W. Bush has his ranch at Crawford, Texas, and many presidents in between developed mystical attachments to their retreats. And, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, they've all had Camp David.
In his second book, USNews & World Report chief White House correspondent Ken Walsh recounts the activities, and sometimes, shenanigans, of 17 U.S. presidents at their favorite havens. The White House imposes its own stern discipline upon its inhabitants, and that relentless scrutiny seems to engender the urge to escape in all presidents. When a president is out at Mount Vernon, Monticello or Camp David, he can row his boat, chop his weeds or oversee his crops to his heart's content ' and the public sees what he does as a virtue.
Walsh examines his chosen presidents not only in retreat but also in the context of the major events of their times, their values and the intimate aspects of family relationships. Along the way, we are made privy to many little known and interesting facts.
George Washington, for example, was a stern taskmaster who owned slaves, and owning slaves, as Walsh points out, required cruel measures. At Mount Vernon, Washington 'raffled off the slaves, including children, of bankrupt slaveholders who owed him money.'
John Adams was the first to live in the Washington White House. Before Adams took office, Philadelphia was the nation's capital. In Adams' time, air-conditioning was far in the future, and malaria was fairly common, so getting out of Washington's miserable summer climate was an understandable desire. Adams' chosen getaway was Quincy, Massachusetts, the family home named after his grandfather.
Thomas Jefferson, who became president in 1800, loved Monticello, the Virginia mansion he had designed and built. He claimed he 'would rather be sick in bed at Monticello than hale and chipper anywhere else.'
From Jefferson, Walsh leaps to Abraham Lincoln who, he judges, had to deal 'with perhaps more stress than any other commander-in-chief.' The crisis of Lincoln's presidency, of course, was the Civil War.
Abe chose as his retreat the Soldier's Home in Washington, D.C. A short ride from the White House, these trips did not disrupt the nation's business, but security was an issue. Lincoln was the first president to be protected under strict security measures.
At the other end of the scale, Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt did not stand for restrictions on his comportment.
Teddy's vacation spot was Sagamore Hill, Long Island, where he spent his summers for seven straight years. Technology was moving forward, so with special radio, telegraph and telephone equipment, the business of government proceeded unimpeded.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a member of the aristocracy, often traveled to the family estate in Hyde Park, New York.
When FDR died in 1945, Harry S Truman was thrust into the presidency. Truman had a hominess about him, giving rise to the nickname Truman the Human. He had grown up in Independence, Missouri, and he went back whenever he could.
Truman's successor was Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike, the general who had commanded winning allied armies during World War II, chose a battlefield as a vacation spot: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
John F. Kennedy's presidency took on an aura of magical optimism. He did much of his work at Hyannisport, Massachusetts, the Kennedy family estate. The country watched enthralled as Kennedy, wife Jackie, children and entourage all cavorted on the lawn.
Lyndon Baynes Johnson, who became president when JFK was assassinated, immediately put his own stamp on the presidency. He began the familiar tradition of presidential trips to the ranch in Texas.
Republican Richard Nixon, elected as the pendulum of public opinion swung to the right, was private, resenting his loss of privacy as president. He spent his spare time at San Clemente, California.
The Watergate break-in at Democratic headquarters ' again much in the news with the revelation of the identity of the legendary source known as Deep Throat ' brought Nixon down. His vice-president, Gerald Ford, succeeded to the presidency. Despite his reputation for clumsiness, Ford was an athlete who retreated to Vail, Colorado.
Enter Jimmy Carter, from Plains, Georgia. Carter enjoyed returning home to Plains whenever opportunity arose.
Ronald Reagan ' who epitomized the ideal of the hard-working, forward-looking, honest American ' loved his ranch near Santa Barbara, California.
Following Reagan was George H. W. Bush, who claimed Kennebunkport, Maine as his hideaway from the White House.
William Clinton, the next White House occupant, hailed from Arkansas but got away to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.
Thus arrives George Bush, who likes to spend time at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he regales visiting heads of state and other dignitaries. Author Walsh has toured the Crawford ranch by truck with the president as driver.
There you have it; these are the places where our presidents relax, if that's the word. This review doesn't mention Camp David, but Walsh devotes an entire chapter to that idyllic spot, and it's a chapter that's a gem of a read.
Walsh leaves out a few important incidents, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion under Kennedy's watch, but for the most part he encapsulates each president's tenure and gives us insight into how presidents cope, as real people, with the crises that beset the nation and the world.