It's Time To Stop Vacation-Shaming Our Presidents

08/05/2014 07:40 am ET | Updated Aug 12, 2014

President Barack Obama has received a lot of flak for his annual summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard. Critics claim that he's ignoring America's problems, global chaos and the plight of people who can only dream of a two-week stint on a famously expensive island.

Obama's aides push back against this ritual vacation-shaming with the standard vacation justification. Just as flacks for previous presidents have done, they say that his time-off won’t include that much relaxation, that he'll remain burdened by the pressures and demands of the Oval Office -– in short, that he won’t really take a vacation at all.

That was certainly the message conveyed last summer, when the White House released a photo of Obama in workout clothes receiving his daily briefing.

Between the shaming and the justifying, there's not much discussion of how the president -- and the country -- might actually benefit from a genuine vacation. As David Frum, a former George W. Bush speechwriter who's now a senior editor at The Atlantic, wrote about Obama's 2011 vacation: "A tense, edgy, unhappy and overtired president is good for nobody."

In downplaying his vacation, Obama's team is responding to a very American idea -- that time off is time wasted, or at least will be criticized as such by others. A 2012 study found that many U.S. workers do not take even their allotted time, on average leaving nine days of vacation on the table.

And presidents know that pundits, no matter their political leanings, delight in keeping score of days away from the White House, often using statistics compiled by CBS News reporter Mark Knoller. Before Obama's departure for the Vineyard last year, Rev. Al Sharpton told viewers of his MSNBC show "PoliticsNation" that by the same point in their respective presidencies, George W. Bush had taken almost four times as many vacation days as Obama had.

This president, Sharpton declared, "has taken 92 days of vacation since he was sworn in. How many did President Bush take by the same point in his presidency? Three hundred and sixty seven. Yes, more than a full year of vacation." By this logic, the fewer vacation days taken, the better.

In recent decades at least, the White House has been reluctant to own the idea that the man in the Oval Office needs time to de-stress. No president has wanted to encourage the perception that he's loafing off -- or that he's truly unplugged.

Ari Fleischer, press secretary for George W. Bush, used the paradoxical phrase “working vacations” in 2001 to explain the newly inaugurated president's decision to spend 30 days in Texas less than six months after he entered office. Fleischer’s successors stuck to that script, employing the same phrase in 2005, the year that Bush's total vacation days eclipsed Ronald Reagan's total for his entire presidency. (Bush eventually racked up 879, compared to Reagan's 335.)

Perhaps as a response to all this scorekeeping, presidential spokesmen have come to define more leisurely activities as "work."

This is why Karl Rove made Bush's summer reading a political point, according to Brendan Doherty, a U.S. Naval Academy professor who has built a data set of presidential public events going back to the Carter days. "In an effort to combat the perception of George W. Bush as not being an intellectual heavyweight, [Rove] would talk about how the president would dive into weighty biographies on his vacation," Doherty told The Huffington Post.

For those who vacation not on isolated ranches but in hot spots of the rich and powerful, even everyday socializing can be turned into work.

Obama previously spent time on Martha's Vineyard hobnobbing with important donors. This year, he will headline a fundraiser two days after he begins his annual period of rest. Bill Clinton used to spend his Vineyard trips engaged in "relentless socializing and hand-shaking as if the local farmer’s market held the key to the national agricultural vote," according to veteran columnist Walter Shapiro.

The Clinton case suggests that presidents' failure to fully unplug and unwind isn’t just a result of protective aides or political concerns. Presidents themselves seem to have a difficult time with the idea of downtime. They may be garrulous pols like Clinton who, Doherty said, "thrived on more and more activity" or Type A figures who refuse to admit that they need to relax now and then. Incapable of imagining a world without work of some kind, they define vacation as another chance to schmooze.

It's indisputable that a vacationing president must be able to respond to any crisis that might arise when he's away from Washington. As Bloomberg noted in a story last summer, major disasters -- from threatened violence over black student enrollment in Arkansas in 1957 to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- have often demanded that the commander in chief interrupt or end his summer vacation. Doherty said that is why the government funds a "mobile White House" of sorts at presidential vacation spots. In the case of Reagan and both Bushes, who made repeated visits to their own homes, the government set up permanent infrastructure, such as living space for the Secret Service.

But even if presidents can never be truly unreachable, their well-being depends on the occasional opportunity to disconnect from the job -- and then return to work refreshed.

Some past presidents understood that unplugging and recharging was essential to their job performance. Reagan would often write in his diary about how much he missed his ranch while he was at the White House, according to Doherty. "Reagan would become angry at his staff when they cut short his time on the ranch, and Reagan said to [White House Deputy Chief of Staff] Michael Deaver that he was convinced that the more time he spent on the ranch, the more time he would stay alive," Doherty said.

Reagan had perhaps learned the lesson of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who devised the critical World War II Lend-Lease program to aid Britain after spending 10 days fishing, watching movies and generally decompressing -- while war was raging in Europe, no less.

Americans struggling with their own stress might benefit from looking to these presidents as role models. There's a slideshow on the White House website called, “A Look Back: Presidential Vacations." John F. Kennedy adviser Ted Sorensen is quoted remembering his boss and friend as a man who "could block out the strains of the moment and devote every inch of mind and body to leisure as intensively as he had to work."

President Obama Drinking Beer

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