Why We Love It When the President Goes Away

Posted: Thu, 08/26/2010 - 5:11pm

The President of the United States is on vacation. I am not. It rained for his first three days in Martha’s Vineyard. The sun was shining here. (Tee hee.)

Forgive my enjoyment. But it’s nice to take a break from news of floods, imminent hurricanes, mosque debates and the impending spectacle of Glenn Beck and Al Sharpton facing off on the National Mall this weekend, to meditate on something lighter for a change – time off.

My summer vacation is over, alas. It seems I returned to Washington just in time to watch everybody else pack up and leave. In the case of the First Family, and much of the White House press corps, the destination was Martha’s Vineyard.

If you’ve never been there and have only read about it, you might think the Vineyard is a tiny island with a boat dock, a couple of golf courses and a summer population made up of rich black people and Kennedy relatives.

In fact, the island is surprisingly large, with rolling farms, extensive beaches and at least three bustling waterfront towns. People who vacation there or live there year round are generally pleased when Presidents arrive, and relieved when they go.

As it happens, the first time I ever went to the island was to cover a Presidential vacation. The year was 1993, and we were all still way too interested in the Clinton family.

As part of the press corps covering the trip for The New York Times, I stopped writing about the federal budget and arms control for a week, instead dedicating myself to reporting about the President’s golf game and his 18-inch lemon poppy seed birthday cake. I reported that Bill Clinton took mulligans on the golf course, that his cake had blackberries on it, and that he dined with Vernon Jordan. (Obama dined with Jordan too. Some things just endure.)

These details matter when you are covering a Presidential vacation. The reporters covering the Obamas this week devoted themselves to their share of minutiae too, pressing the press spokesman for the titles of the books the President bought at the local bookstore, the board games he played and the food he ate. (Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” SCRABBLE, and shrimp, apparently),

Looking back over the stories I filed for the Times 17 years ago, I cringe a bit. My big scoop was President Clinton’s words when he hit his first golf ball: “Whoa mama, stay up!”

In my defense, a previous vacation reporter had chronicled the same thing while covering President George H.W. Bush: “Oh, golly darn, get up there!” Someday historians will delve into this.

Reporters who covered George W. Bush suggest this was an improvement over Crawford, Texas vacations, which usually included dispatches about Mr. Bush cutting brush. But those who went to Kennebunkport or Santa Barbara with Ronald Reagan seemed to mind a lot less. I guess ocean views mute complaint.

There are no ocean views in Washington. But with the President on the beach and members of Congress at home running for reelection, the streets here have been empty and the rhetoric muted. Next week there will be a prime time Presidential speech, Mideast peace talks, and hurricane anniversaries to cover.

For now, I’ll take the quiet.