If you want to take the pulse of America, cast a glance at where the leaders of the free world take their summer holidays.
Now these aren’t the low key, under-the-radar getaways favoured by their counterparts in other countries. British lady premiers can lose themselves in the Swiss and Austrian Alps. Tony Blair would disappear into one of his cronies’ swish foreign villas and nothing seemed more normal.
But in the US, there’s no such thing as a private presidential vacation. The travelling entourage – aides, secret service men, reporters – numbers in the three figures. Photos of the great man and his family at leisure are de rigeur. What they do, what they read, the music they listen to, where they eat out: all are matters of much public concern. And in their different ways they tell you about the country. Or to put it another way, presidential holidays have grown as polarised as everything else in American politics.
Once it wasn’t like that. Dwight Eisenhower would retreat to his farm near Gettysburg, an hour and a half’s drive north of Washington. The house, incidentally, is a secret jewel: a must-visit museum in the rolling Pennsylvania countryside where the clock has stopped for ever in the mid-1950s.
JFK had his family compounds in Massachusetts and Palm Beach, Lyndon Johnson had his ranch in Texas, Nixon had his western White House at San Clemente, California, while Jimmy Carter went home to Plains, Georgia. The Reagans disappeared to their ranch in California, leaving the attendant press corp to enjoy themselves in Santa Barbara.
Or take George H W Bush, who took the sort of holidays the now all but vanished White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Wasp) elite has always taken, at the family estate in New England, indulging the pastimes of the moneyed and well-mannered East Coast Republican establishment, such as horseshoes, sailing and offshore fishing.
With Bill Clinton, however, polarisation was starting to set in, and things began to change. Born in modest circumstances, of modest means, the first baby boomer in the Oval Office had no family spread – so why not, his advisers argued, use vacations to make a political point? Thus, a couple of presidential trips early on to the Rockies, featuring hiking and even the odd night out under canvas, just like regular Americans.
Clinton, though, was never a convincing outdoorsman. Later a more accurate holiday persona emerged: the gregarious, eternally curious Democrat, who loved the company of the liberal intelligentsia, with a dash of celebrity stardust thrown in. Martha’s Vineyard, the smart getaway for stressed urbanites just off the coast of liberal Massachusetts, was a perfect spot.
But it wasn’t where you’d find salt of the earth Republican good ol’ boys. For these, you’d be better off pursuing Clinton’s successor George W Bush to his ranch outside the one traffic-light town of Crawford on the dusty and sweltering Texas plains. There, at his holiday venue of preference, homeboy “Dubya” liked to sweat it all out, chopping brush and mountain biking. The White House reporters who had to tag along weren’t too keen – but this was an authentic Republican holiday, unencumbered by fancy folk, fancy restaurants and fancy talk.
Barack Obama, though, is Vineyard through and through. Seven of his eight presidential summer vacations have been spent there: this is his last. In some ways, he is the most mysterious modern president of all; cool and aloof, jealous of his every shred of the privacy.
But this year he has opened a small window into his habits: a tweeted playlist of Obama’s songs of summer 2016: from the Beach Boys to Billie Holliday, by way of Miles Davis and Chance the Rapper. It should be noted that country and western, that great Republican staple, is entirely missing. No wonder he’s also the most polarising president of them all.
In one respect, though, Obama fits an all-embracing pattern. If there’s one great unifier of presidents on vacation, Republican or Democrat, patrician or common man, it’s the game of golf. Its appeal is obvious: the fresh air, the schmooze potential, that it is not too strenuous, and the fleeting escape from the bubble of office. A president even gets to drive himself, even if only in a golf cart.
And the sport can be as revealing of a man as where he goes on holiday. Eisenhower loved golf, even if the frequency with which he played (he clocked up 800 rounds during eight years in office) was grist for the mill of those who claimed Ike was but a part-time president.
The best recent golfer in the Oval Office, according to Don Van Natta in his terrific 2003 book First Off the Tee, was Eisenhower’s successor John F Kennedy. JFK possessed a swing as graceful and effortless as the man, but to project a more dynamic image than Eisenhower, Kennedy kept his golf – like other of his extracurricular activities – under wraps.
Richard Nixon doggedly learnt the game, but played relatively little. Might more time spent on the course have meant less of the paranoia that led to Watergate? Jimmy Carter wasn’t a golfer – no surprise there. But Reagan always enjoyed the game, as did his more frenetic successor George H W Bush, famous for playing entire rounds in 90 minutes. Bush junior was also a keen player, though in the interests of gravitas cut back on the pursuit during the Iraq War.
Clinton wasn’t a bad golfer either, though as one might expect, he played fast and loose with the rules, allowing himself frequent do-overs after wayward drives, and awarding himself long “gimme” putts. Obama (who’s played more than any president since Eisenhower) is as meticulous as Clinton was careless, scoring his rounds exactly. And this week he disclosed a state secret. His handicap, he confided to an interviewer, is “an honest” 13. If indeed “honest”, that's pretty good.
Soon though Obama will take his leave – and presidential golf could take on an entirely new dimension. Forget Hillary Clinton, who has never betrayed an ounce of interest. I refer of course to one Donald J Trump. He doesn’t just play golf courses. He owns them.
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