Now that President Obama has returned from his two-week summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard—that is to say, now that life in political Washington is back to normal—we may put this annual media ritual in some perspective. Or put another way: If you're an admirer of Obama, you will regard this brief interlude as a much-needed respite from the burdens of the presidency; if you're not an admirer of Obama, you will consider this a prolonged taxpayer-subsidized holiday from responsibility. Take your pick.
Presidential vacations, naturally enough, tend to reflect their times and particular presidents. A century ago, and more, presidential "vacations" were not so much holiday excursions or seasonal breaks as reflections of the political calendar. Congress was typically out of session more than it was in, and before the invention of air conditioning, Washington, D.C. in the humid summertime was essentially unfit for habitation. (I can attest to this personally, having grown up in the Washington area in a house without air conditioning during the 1950s and '60s.)
Add to this the length and difficulty of travel, and the fact that legislators tended to spend more time in their constituencies than in the Capitol, it makes sense that presidents before the early/mid-20th century regarded the Executive Mansion as temporary housing rather than "home" for the First Family. Of course, this was not the case during times of crisis—the Civil War, for example, when Washington was literally in military peril—but it was typical until surprisingly recently in history. And of course, the Supreme Court, which won't reconvene until the fabled "first Monday in October," still follows the traditional schedule.
People who cavil at Obama's much-publicized two-week golfing/working vacations might be surprised to know that Franklin D. Roosevelt would spend weeks at a time at his Hyde Park estate, or fishing off the New England coast. To be sure, FDR was always officially in touch, and accompanied by the Secret Service wherever he went, but his absences from the capital were frequent and prolonged. By contrast, and characteristically, his successor Harry Truman would travel either to his mother-in-law's house in Independence or, more famously, to quarters at the naval air station at Key West, playing poker with friends and colleagues and being photographed in loud, and much-criticized, Hawaiian shirts.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was incessantly rebuked and satirized for his fondness for golf, and accused by Democrats of spending more time on the links than at his desk. Of course, this was not only untrue and unfair but ironic as well: Obama and Bill Clinton, for example, have consumed much greater portions of their presidencies playing golf than Ike ever did. Eisenhower's vacations, moreover, were comparatively modest affairs. He was on a golfing vacation at the naval base at Newport when he met with Gov. Orval Faubus about the Little Rock school integration crisis, and pointedly interrupted the vacation to return to the White House -- "speaking from the house of Lincoln, of Jackson, and of Wilson" -- to announce the dispatch of the 101st Airborne Division when Faubus defied the federal courts.
Lyndon Johnson spent his restless vacations at his Texas ranch, driving around the fields and pastures in his white Lincoln Continental, while Richard Nixon would retreat to friends' secluded waterfront residences in California and Florida. Ronald Reagan's simple ranch house and acreage near Santa Barbara was a convenient retreat and venue to be photographed riding, cutting wood, and clearing brush. George Bush the Elder nearly always traveled to his ancestral summer place on the Maine coast while George Bush the Younger preferred Reagan-style outdoor vacations at his spartan Texas ranch.
No modern president, of course, is ever isolated from his duties, and the character of presidents is reflected in their habits. Bill Clinton seems to be the first president to have deliberately chosen his annual vacation trips for political purposes, and Barack Obama manifestly likes to play golf with celebrities and political donors in friendly circumstances (Martha's Vineyard). So be it. Clinton was criticized for his cynicism but, restless and obsessive, he was probably indifferent to where he vacationed, or how. Similarly, while Obama may be criticized for many things, he is surely entitled to some brief relaxation throughout the year—and exemption from partisan sniping. I can think of worse derelictions of presidential duty than wearing a poplin suit at a press conference, or failing to rush back to Washington in response to each day's Big Story.