The Magazine

Home Alone

Fred Barnes, the stuck-in-towner

Jun 11, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 37 • By FRED BARNES
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THE TEMPTATION WAS THERE FOR YEARS: buy a second home somewhere outside the Beltway and nest there on weekends, for long, lazy periods during the summer, at Thanksgiving and Christmas and maybe other holidays. A place beyond earshot of the Washington buzz, a place to read or watch sports on cable TV without interruption, a place to get my entire family together—that was my fondest dream. Several months ago I succumbed and bought a house (with a small swimming pool) a half block from the Atlantic Ocean in Vero Beach, Florida.

It was an impulse buy. My wife Barbara and I had never been able to agree on where our second home should be or even whether it made sense to buy one. I tilted toward the countryside around Charlottesville, Virginia, where our daughter Grace is a student at the University of Virginia. Access to UVA football, basketball, and lacrosse games was a strong selling point. Barbara favored the beach, but not Vero Beach, where my parents moved in 1972 and where my mother still lives. Too hot, too humid, Barbara insisted. We both changed our mind when we saw this house. We bought it on the spot.

Now comes what I didn’t think would be the hard part: getting there. The old rule of thumb is that if the second home is more than two hours away, you’ll rarely go. But that’s not true in this case. People are flocking to the new place. Barbara and Grace, along with Barbara’s mother, spent a week there in May, furnishing it but also getting beach time. Our daughter Sarah, son-in-law John, and granddaughter Grace have reserved the house for a week in June. Her older sister Karen and husband Allen have locked in a separate June week.

Nobody is deterred by the 16-hour drive from Washington to Vero. They’re not driving. They’re flying. And there are many inexpensive airline options (under $200 round trip). Particularly attractive are the direct flights each day on Spirit Airlines between Reagan National Airport in Washington (10 minutes from our house) and Melbourne, Florida (40 minutes from the second home).

It turns out the two-hour rule applies only to me. A quick Saturday-Sunday drop-by in May? Didn’t happen. Memorial Day weekend? Didn’t make it then either. Join my kids in Vero Beach during June? Not going to happen. I’ve got plans to spend the last week in June there. But I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up.

What’s keeping me away is a catch I didn’t expect. I couldn’t have purchased the place on my print journalism earnings alone. But I make a little extra from television. The catch is that while television made buying a second home possible, it’s also what keeps me from getting there. The Fox News Channel pays me for showing up five days a week if humanly possible for Brit Hume’s popular evening show and also taping a weekend show with Mort Kondracke. I love doing these shows. But they don’t make it easy to get to Vero Beach. Print is less of an impediment, since you can work away from the office.

Of course, I need the TV money now more than ever. The expenses of a second home—mortgage, taxes, insurance, cable TV, telephone, lawn service, caretaker (important!), gardener, gated community fee—just keep piling up. And it’s not like a hotel. I have to pay whether I’m there or not. I don’t want to turn the house into a rental. When I do have a chance to get there, I want it to be vacant.

I do want to get there. Vero Beach is a lovely town with very little commercial development on the beach. My mother lives fifteen minutes away. My sister Rosa and her husband Jack, who run a missionary organization called Christian Outreach International, are even closer. Young people call the town Zero Beach, because it’s so unexciting. This is why I like it. If there’s nightlife, I’ve never heard about it and don’t want to. But the Los Angeles Dodgers train in Vero each spring, playing exhibition games at a stadium whose outfield is lined with palm trees. And there’s a Dodgers farm team that plays all summer in the Florida State League.

Sounds like a perfect retirement town, doesn’t it? Well, I have no intention of retiring anytime soon. My model is Robert Novak, still the hardest working man (and best reporter) in journalism at age 70. Bob has a second home in Bethany Beach, Delaware, less than three hours’ drive from Washington. He does plenty of TV, yet gets to Bethany all the time. I don’t know how he manages this. Sure, his place is closer than Florida. But Vero is close by plane. Maybe there’s a habit of leaving Washington behind that I haven’t developed. But I intend to—as soon as I finish just one more TV show.