A Short History of Presidential Vacation Outrage

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The Obama family hikes in Maine's Acadia National Park on July 16, 2010 Pete Souza / The White House-Getty Images

The only thing worse than having to work while lots of people are on vacation must be having to work in the press pool covering people on vacation. Because just as predictable as the pundit machine's August fixation on silly stuff is that the press corps will find something scandalous to say about a presidential vacation. Not just Obama. Every president. Despite White House spokesman Bill Burton's suggestion that the Obamas are being harassed with unprecedented attack for their recent leisure travels, this is nothing new. As Kenneth Walsh says, criticizing the president's cottage destination has become a cottage industry in D.C.: "No matter who is the president, the opposition party delights in criticizing him for taking time off, billing it as insensitive to the problems of struggling Americans, demonstrating aristocratic excess, or betraying some hedonistic character flaw." The only thing new are the creative methods of finding fault with taking time off. In that spirit, here's a short guide to how to turn a presidential vacation into a "scandal."

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Michelle (left) and Sasha (second from left) Obama with members of their entourage in Ronda, Spain on August 7, 2010. Jorge Guerrero / AFP-Getty Images

The Obamas

Vacationing in an Elitist Enclave: For their first major vacation since President Obama took office, the first family chose to visit Martha's Vineyard in August 2009. The press breathlessly described the island off Cape Cod as a playground for "the liberal elite." The New York Times hosted an online debate about how much Democrats love the resort. When the first family announced its plans to return to Martha's Vineyard a year later, conservative commentator Michelle Malkin was outraged at the "spendapalooza." When Michelle and Sasha Obama traveled to Spain, they were hounded for taking too lavish a vacation, with one columnist claiming the first lady was a "modern-day Marie Antoinette."

Recklessly Rubbing Elbows with the Hoi Polloi: In June 2010, President and Mrs. Obama took a romantic getaway to the Big Apple for a weekend. The RNC, seizing on news that GM was about to file for bankruptcy, issued a release attacking the president: "Putting on a show: Obamas wing into the city for an evening out while another iconic American company prepares for bankruptcy." Other critics grumbled that the Obamas were wasting taxpayer dollars by visiting a big city where they required a large and costly security detail.

Traveling Too Far from the Heartland: When the so-called "Underpants Bomber" attempted to ignite explosives on a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, Obama was with his family in Hawaii, the state where he was born. GOP strategist Kevin Madden earned attention (and ridicule) for telling CNN, "You have to also remember the fact that the president being on vacation in Hawaii, it's much different than being in Texas. Hawaii to many Americans seems like a foreign place."

Traveling Too Near the Heartland: When Obama opted to head to Chicago for Memorial Day 2010 and lay a wreath at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery—leaving Vice President Biden to visit Arlington National Cemetery—he was blasted as unpatriotic. But liberal media watchdogs Media Matters noted that President Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Bush did the same.

Vacationing Too Frequently: So have the Obamas traveled too much? That's what some critics say, pointing out that they've now been on some seven vacations. The RNC also chided Obama for playing too much golf.

Vacationing Too Little: Under fire for traveling to luxury resorts, the Obamas have scheduled a trip to Florida's Gulf Coast this weekend. But critics howl: they'll only spend 27 hours there! (One Internet forum cracked, "Will 27 hours be long enough for Obama to see how many jobs he killed in the gulf?") While attacking a president for spending too little time on vacation might seem unorthodox, there's more. Some commentators seem to wonder whether there will be enough leisure involved, given that Obama intends to meet with local business owners. And Matt Drudge demands to know: "Will Sasha swim in the Gulf?"

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President Bush cycles on his ranch Crawford, Texas, on July 27, 2004. Eric Draper / The White House-Getty Images

The Bushes

Vacationing Too Much: When President George W. Bush left office, CBS' numbers guru Mark Knoller calculated that Bush spent 487 days at Camp David and 490 at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. It wasn't the first time that had come up. A weeks-long holiday in summer 2005 was interrupted first by antiwar protestor Cindy Sheehan, who camped outside his ranch and demanded to meet the president, earning significant attention. Then things got worse, as Hurricane Katrina hits Louisiana, and liberals promptly bashed Bush for being on vacation when disaster struck. As a result, the spotlight was on the following summer. In August 2006, The Washington Post devoted a lengthy analysis to his vacation habits, while liberal TV host Keith Olbermann of MSNBC likened Bush to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who, he says, vacationed while Hitler invaded parts of Europe.

Ignoring Work on Vacation: Although it wasn't an issue at the time, Bush's time at his ranch in late summer 2001 became a point of contention later on. As Fred Kaplan and Dan Froomkin later pointed out, it was during this time that Bush was briefed on the activities of some of the 9/11 hijackers, reportedly telling a briefer, "All right. You've covered your ass, now." By the time the hijackers struck the Pentagon and World Trade Center the following month, Bush had returned from his holiday. Liberal documentarian Michael Moore later ridiculed Bush in his film Fahrenheit 9/11, using a clip of Bush offering the press a quote, then turning away and saying, "Now, watch this drive."

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President Clinton (right) golfs on Martha's Vineyard on August 5, 2000 Darren McCollester / Newsmakers

The Clintons, Bushes, Reagans and Before

Not Ignoring Work on Vacation: Following attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, President Clinton took time from a trip to Martha's Vineyard to order cruise missile strikes against presumed Al Qaeda targets, subsequently facing some criticism for launching attacks from the comfortable confines of the island. That was a reprise of an earlier incident when President George H.W. Bush came under fire for remaining at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, during the planning of the first Gulf War, rather than returning to Washington.

Being Too Focused on Family Values: You don't believe pundits have been criticizing presidents for as long as they've been vacationing, and for any available reason? Try this on one for size: in 1798, President John Adams left the capital for seven months to care for his ailing wife, prompting snickers among opponents that he had relinquished his office. The more things change...

For more information, check out Factcheck.org's tally of President Obama's vacation days as compared to Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter and Ford.

A Short History of Presidential Vacation Outrage | U.S.
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