Friday, August 05, 2005

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch ...

[[P O L I T I C S]] * Complaining about George W. Bush’s protracted summer holidays has become a perennial event. Way back in August 2001, the San Jose Mercury News carried a story that chided Bush for taking “30 full days away from the Oval Office ... the longest such break since Richard Nixon spent the same amount of time at his San Clemente [California] home in 1969.” That article quoted Leon Panetta, President Clinton’s former chief of staff, as saying, “I really do think that with the nature of the problems confronting the world as well as this country, it just would be a little more comforting to make sure that he’s around both the departments and agencies and crises that he’s got to confront.” This, of course, was just a month before the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.--the same time at which Bush received the now notorious President’s Daily Brief with a section entitled “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US,” suggesting the possibility of hijacking attempts by followers of Osama bin Laden.

Bush’s dwindling cadre of defenders inevitably counter that, thanks to today’s technology, the prez can stay on top of things just as well from his 1,600-acre show ranch at Crawford, Texas, as he does from the Oval Office. (There’s a joke waiting to be made there, but I’m too much of a gentleman to deliver it.) Still, Cenk Uygur, co-host of the liberal radio talk show The Young Turks, is incensed that Bush, who’s already spent nearly 20 percent of his presidency at his “Western White House,” is now in the midst of another five-week Lone State vacation. As he writes in The Huffington Post:

You might be able to get away with doing this little work, if you did a job that really isn’t very important. But for the love of God, this man is the President of the United States. He has the most important job in the world. He makes decisions that get thousands of people killed, for better or for worse. He changes the course of nations. He makes decisions that affect all of our lives, and sometimes end some of our lives--like the 21 Marines who came home in coffins over the last couple of days while the President was on vacation. Do you mind paying a little attention when you have a job like that?
According to a recent Washington Post piece, Bush’s latest “working holiday”--which marks his 49th excursion to Crawford since he took up residency in the White House in 2001--will boost his vacation days total beyond even that of Ronald Reagan, who as commander in chief spent 335 days at his ranch in Santa Barbara, California. Note, however, that Reagan’s sum accounts for his eight-year presidency; barring his impeachment and removal from office, Bush still has 3.5 years to go in his second term. Several sources point out that Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, technically enjoyed half again as much vacation time as Reagan did--543 days during his single term, spent mostly at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland, or the Bush family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine--but evidently that count comprises whole as well as partial days.

By comparison, workaholic Democrat Bill Clinton practically had to be chased away from his desk. During his eight-year presidency, he spent only 152 days on vacation. (As former strategist Jim Jordan once said, “It almost killed Clinton to take one-week vacations during August. He would take one week almost every summer in the Martha’s Vineyard, and he was famously ‘antsy’ when he was doing so.”) In 2000, Clinton cut his summer holiday down to just three days, so he could help his wife, Hillary, plan her U.S. Senate race. Among recent presidents, only fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter took fewer days off than Clinton: 79, most of which he spent at his Georgia home.

But while it’s easy to disparage Bush the Younger for spending the entire month of August away from D.C., it must be pointed out, in all fairness, that previous chief execs have fled for longer periods of time. A story at the History News Network site recalls that Thomas Jefferson, who preferred his Monticello home in Virginia to the White House, chose in 1805 to leave Washington in mid-July and not return until October, “setting the precedent for long presidential vacations”--a precedent soon exceeded by James Madison. In 1816, the last full year of Madison’s presidency, he “slipped out of Washington in June ... and didn’t return until October. His four-month vacation was the longest of any president.” Only John Adams, the second president, was away from office for longer--seven months. But that was because he’d rushed home in the summer of 1798 to be with his dying wife, Abigail, on their Massachusetts farm. As HHN observes, “Enemies joked that [Adams] had abdicated.”

Most Americans, though, don’t bring such historical perspectives to Bush’s behavior. Like radiohead Uygur, they’re frustrated at seeing him take another vacation, rather than hunkering down at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to address military disasters, political scandals, and the nation’s continuing economic woes. A new AP-Ipsos poll found public approval of Bush’s handling of the disastrous Iraq war slipping to its lowest level yet: 38 percent. (Interestingly, Midwesterners and young folks with, at best, high-school educations were the least pleased with Bush’s performance.) At the same time, 50 percent of those polled said Bush isn’t honest, while 48 percent continue to trust him. As CNN explains: “The drop in the number of people who see Bush as honest was largest among middle-aged Americans as well as suburban women, a key voting group in the 2004 election.” Although two-thirds of respondents called Bush strong and likable, 56 percent said the confidence he seeks to portray is actually arrogance; 49 percent said that same thing in January of this year. And 60 percent of the people polled by AP-Ipsos said the United States is “headed down the wrong track.”

Whoa! That’s plenty of stuff for Bush to chew over, in between pitching horseshoes and smiling for the cameras down in Crawford. Let’s hope he makes the effort.

UPDATE: Bush’s broken-record iterations about “staying the course” and “keeping the enemy on the run” in Iraq seem to be falling on increasingly deaf ears. A new USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll finds an “unprecedented” 57-percent majority saying that the war in Iraq has increased the United States’ vulnerability to terrorist attacks. Only 34 percent of Americans--“a new low”--contend that the war has made them safer. The same poll found Bush’s job approval at 45 percent, a statistically insignificant change from last month’s 44 percent.

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