Vacation, All He Ever Wanted
Among the latest claims of Republican mythmakers is that Barack Obama is not only a secret Muslim, but one who takes too many days off. Of course, the charge is hardly new. In May 2009, the Republican National Committee sneered, "Have a great Saturday evening - even if you're not jetting off somewhere at taxpayer expense." Seven months later, Republicans, despite President Bush's identical behavior after the December 2001 Shoe Bomber episode, decried Obama's refusal to cut short his Hawaii holiday after the Underwear Bomb plot. And now, the Washington Post reports, the GOP is asking of the man who succeeded the all-time presidential vacation record holder, "Does President Obama deserve a vacation?"
In its article titled, "Republicans question whether President Obama deserves a vacation," the Washington Post tees up both the right-wing charge and the obvious response:
But this year, more so than last, political opponents are trying to hang a question over the visit: Does President Obama deserve a vacation?
The Republican National Committee has taken to calling Obama "the Clark Griswold president," a mocking reference to the Chevy Chase character in National Lampoon's "Vacation" movies. With unemployment claims climbing again, the GOP was hoping its criticism would have a certain national resonance. And maybe it will.
One potential complication: Obama has spent far less time on vacation than his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, had at this point in his presidency.
On that point, the numbers are clear. Obama's nine "vacations" and 48 days away from the White House pale in comparison to George W. Bush's 14 visits to - and 115 days spent at - his Crawford, Texas ranch by the same point in his presidency. Perhaps important, Barack Obama has spent the first year and a half of his time in office cleaning up the messes left by his predecessor, disasters certainly not helped by Bush's dubious - and legendary - work ethic.
As it turns out, Bush easily eclipsed Ronald Reagan's previous record for presidential sloth. By March 2008, Bush had spent all or part of 879 days at his Crawford, Texas ranch or at Camp David, surpassing Reagan's mark of 866. By the time he left office, George W. Bush had made 149 trips to and spent 487 days at Camp David, with another 77 getaways to (and 490 days at) Crawford. Toss in 11 visits and 43 days at his folks' compound in Kennebunkport, Maine and President Bush spent 1020 days - 35% of his presidency - getting away from the White House.
And it's what President Bush missed during his down time that is all the more disturbing still.
Republican leaders and their amen corner may have forgotten what happened when the record-setting President Bush took his month-long summer vacation in 2001, but the American people haven't. While Bush spent weeks in Crawford fretting over the politics of stem cell research and brushing off CIA briefers he said "covered your ass," Bin Laden was indeed "determined to strike in U.S."
As Slate detailed five years ago, "while Bush vacationed, 9/11 warnings went unheard." Those missed alarms not only took the form of that bone-chilling August 6, 2001 presidential daily brief (PDB) but in CIA briefings that never occurred. While George Tenet, Richard Clarke and others told the 9/11 Commission they were running around that summer with their "hair on fire" about potential terrorist attacks from Al Qaeda, Tenet acknowledged that in August, "I was not in briefings at this time." President Bush, as he told Commissioner Tim Roemer, "was on vacation."
And what a vacation it was.
As USA Today told Americans on August 3, 2001:
"Six months after taking office, President Bush will begin a month-long vacation Saturday that is significantly longer than the average American's annual getaway. If Bush returns as scheduled on Labor Day, he'll tie the modern record for presidential absence from the White House."
For their part, Bush White House officials argued "the president is never off the clock," describing his journey to his Crawford, Texas ranch as a "working vacation." And more than anything else, what George W. Bush was working on was stem cell research.
As biographer Robert Draper details over several pages in his 2007 book, Dead Certain, Bush was preoccupied with the stem cell decision before and during his Crawford getaway. On July 9th, Bush told bio-ethicists Leon Kass and Daniel Callahan, "I am wrestling with a difficult decision." Wary of alienating the Republican Party's social conservative base, Bush and his advisers convened a series of meetings to plot a course on the stem cell issue. Their conclusion - harsh restrictions which limited federal funding to a handful of existing stem cell lines - was delivered by President Bush in a nationally televised address to the nation on August 9th, 2001.
The next day, Bush's counselor and long-time spin master Karen Hughes told CNN:
"Several people told him, 'This may be the most important decision of your presidency,' or, 'This is one of the most important decisions you will make. This has more ramifications than almost anything else you will do as president.' A number of people made that point to him."
Which, as Draper concluded, "said a lot about the state of the nation in August 2001."
Of course, at that same time, a host of other people frantic about American national security made another point to George W. Bush. On August 6th, 2001, Bush received and was briefed on the now notorious PDB which ominously warned just five weeks before the September 11 attacks that Osama Bin Laden was determined to strike in the United States. President Bush's response to the briefing, as Ron Suskind revealed in June 2006, was one for posterity:
"All right. You've covered your ass, now."
For all of Presideny Bush's vulgar cynicism, his administration's nonchalance about the growing threat from Bin Laden was perhaps best expressed by then National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Rice, who held the first principals meeting to discuss the Al Qaeda danger only on September 4, 2001, was asked about the PDB memo in April 2004 by Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste:
BEN-VENISTE: Isn't it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6 PDB warned against possible attacks in this country? And I ask you whether you recall the title of that PDB?
RICE: I believe the title was, "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States."
Bush's exquisite timing for time off hardly ended there. As Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in 2005, Bush nevertheless decided to continue his vacation. As New Orleans was inundated, Bush strummed a guitar with country singer Mark Wills and shared a birthday cake with John McCain on an Arizona airport tarmac. Far worse than those images were President Bush's words, including his post-Katrina ode to "Brownie" that "you're doin' a heckuva job" or the dog-ate-my-homework claim, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." While Bush eventually cut short his trip, the damage to the nation - and his presidency - was done.
And so it goes. After the failed Shoe Bomber plot in December 2001, as the Boston Globe noted, "White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said that President Bush continued to monitor the situation and receive updates at Camp David. Bush has not issued any statements about the incident." As Israel and Hezbollah went to war in southern Lebanon in July 2006, President Bush managed to stay in Washington. But as the carnage escalated, Bush used the time in the office to welcome the finalists of American Idol to the White House.
And still, Republicans have, as Sarah Palin would doubtless suggest, the cajones to ask, "Does President Obama deserve a vacation?" After all, for George W. Bush, vacation is all he ever wanted.