A Look at Presidential Vacations

By | August 1, 2014

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Postcard: Hampton Beach, the boardwalk, bandstand, and beach. Lane Memorial Library.

It’s August, and the Dog Days of Summer are here: so warmed up, and slowed down, that even Congress has stopped doing nothing and gone home. The President, following tradition, is likewise decamping to a cooler clime, and in so doing – what with a seemingly extravagant parade of Secret Service agents and White House personnel in his wake – other Presidents, and other vacations, are called to mind. Here, then, is a lazy look at a lonely Woodrow Wilson, and a grouchy Grover Cleveland, and too, the almost forgotten Chester A. Arthur, for whom spending a day out of the office, was his idea of inhabiting it…

Bill Clinton, who was thought to know a good time when he saw one, put it like this: presidents, just like everyone else, “need to recharge their batteries, they need to let their spirits soar, they need to let their hair down, and it’s just difficult to do if the only place you can do it is sort of in your own house… It’s tough.” Which might explain why every president since Washington couldn’t wait to get out of the White House, and relax…

John Adams, then, once went home to Quincy, Massachusetts, for seven whole months. Madison, too, upped and left, for four, and Jefferson, for three. Only James Polk stayed put: he could barely bring himself, poor man, to leave town for a week – and so died of exhaustion, a cautionary tale, three months after his term had ended.  Chester A. Arthur – a man, we hasten to remind, who served as president for some three years in the 1880s –  and liked to get around plenty, still managed, at least, to  elucidate the actions of every Chief Executive before and since, when he wrote here to explain why it had taken him so long to send even a mere autograph. “I  trust you have not attributed my long delay in answering your letter to any other cause than the real one,”  he explained, “- the never ending & still beginning pressure upon my time and  attention.”

For Arthur, the burden of office was nothing less than insult to injury: he had never even wanted the job, for starters, and only ascended, with dread, to the presidency upon the death of the assassinated Garfield in September 1881. Then he found the job so overwhelming, that he could barely bring himself to do it. Away at the drop of a hat, always on the move, he lived to dedicate monuments, make speeches, and entertain lavishly. “All his ambition,” said Mrs. James Blaine, the wife of his first Secretary of State, “seems to center in the social aspect of the situation.” But even if he were on perennial vacation, he still left office a wreck – and so died, less than two years later, at the age of 57.

Arthur’s successor, however, liked to work, and hated, exactly, those aspects of the presidency Arthur so enjoyed. When Grover Cleveland took time off, it was to get away from ceremony, socializing, and – he almost as much and came out and said it – everyone else in Washington. He either liked to be at home with his young family, or go out fishing, hunting and drinking with his pals. In mid-August 1887, he found himself stuck in Washington, which was bad enough; and planning an official tour of eighteen states, which was worse; hence his howl, here, to a friend already on vacation, “I am getting as cross as a bear”:

I suppose by this time – that is by the time this reaches you – you will be nicely settled in the woods. I wish I was there too, but there is positively no hope for me I can see. I am having a dreadful time with invitations to go everywhere and delegations urging such invitations. I feel sometimes as if I would like to give the whole trip up and “take to the woods.” I am getting as cross as a bear which is a very bad sign I think. But I must stick it through… 

Woodrow Wilson, taking office in 1913, was 56 – and not about to let himself get run down. Until America entered the First World War in 1917, Wilson worked four hours a day, slept nine hours a night, played golf regularly and motored, at 22 miles per hour, as often as possible.  Still, with his first wife dead and his second not yet moved in – they dated, secretly and passionately, from March to October 1915 – and with two of his beloved daughters married, the White House was often lonely for the president. In this marvelous letter, typed by him on August 13, 1915, Wilson writes about how he feels, having just returned the day before, from his summer vacation. Mostly, he says, he’s lonely.

It is hard for me to catch my breath for about twenty-four hours after reaching this place. Business and everything else that can engross me seems fairly to rush at me. But at last my desk is cleared and I begin to look about me. The trip down was very hot indeed but we came through all right, and I am very well, and doing my work easily. One could hardly imagine a more empty and forlorn house than this, but I did not expect anything else, and must take my solace from thinking about the precious ones I left behind me at Cornish, – the sweetest daughters any one ever had, and the most loving and lovable, – bless them! I found that nothing had gone wrong because of my absence (they get along shockingly well without me!). The doctor and I played golf yesterday, to reassure the country; and all goes well… 

Of special note, perhaps,  is Wilson’s reference to playing golf (“to reassure the country”) with his personal physician, Dr. Cary Grayson. On vacation or in Washington, Wilson played more golf, less proficiently, than any other president…

But back to the future: Bill Clinton, in 1993, perhaps once again put it best. “There are always people who want to be President,” he said, “and some days I’d like to give it to them.”

CHESTER A. ARTHUR. 1829 – 1886. The 21st President of the United States

Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 2 pages, octavo, Executive Mansion, Washington, August 9, 1882. To Charles C. Jones Jr., in Augusta, Georgia.

GROVER CLEVELAND. 1837 – 1908. The 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed, as President, 4 pages, octavo, Executive Mansion, August 18, 1887. To Dr. John G. Rosman at the Saranac Inn, New York.

WOODROW WILSON. 1856 – 1924. The 28th President of the United States.

Typed Letter Signed (“Father”), as President, 1 page, octavo, The White House, Washington, but on the letterhead of “The President’s Cottage, Cornish, New Hampshire”, August 13, 1915. To “My darling Daughter” – seemingly Jesse Woodrow Sayer or Margaret Wilson.

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