A brief history of controversial presidential vacations

Barack Obama's not the first one to be criticized for taking some time off from running the country

Published August 19, 2011 6:10PM (EDT)

George W. Bush on vacation at his ranch in 2002.
George W. Bush on vacation at his ranch in 2002.

Barack Obama is catching a lot of flak for planning a summer vacation. The president will spend 11 days in Martha's Vineyard, and critics say that's a bad idea when markets are skittish and millions of Americans are out of work or struggling to get by. Of course, Republicans criticizing Obama are just mirroring what Democrats said about President George W. Bush, who, at this point in his presidency, had taken 180 "days off" to Obama's 61.

Partisan wrangling over presidential vacation time is as old as the Republic itself. The Salon.com War Room Historical Fun Fact Team did some research, and found out what sort of grief past presidents got when they wanted to recharge their batteries:

  • 1793 George Washington invents the tradition of the "presidential vacation" when a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia leads him to spend November in Germantown. Despite Washington's immense personal popularity, Aaron Burr is rumored to have made a joke involving the color yellow and Washington's false teeth.
  • 1830: Andrew Jackson invites all free men to accompany him on "The People's Vacation." Tens of thousands of rowdy citizens converge on Niagara Falls, bringing with them copious quantities of highly alcoholic rum punch. Fistfights and brawls soon break out, culminating in the burning and looting of the city of Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. The incident nearly leads to a war with Britain. "Jackson's so-called Vacation has made a National Lampoon of the presidency," says one partisan newspaper.
  • 1865 After four grueling years of bloody war and tremendous personal tragedy, President Lincoln decides to take one lousy night off and go to the theater to see a show.
  • 1905-1909: Teddy Roosevelt spends entire second term on safari in "the dark continent." Responds to criticisms from Democrats by claiming he's expanding America's vital Strategic Ivory Reserve. Embarrassingly, vacation leads Roosevelt to forget to run for reelection in 1908.
  • 1923 Upon learning that President Calvin Coolidge had been out of Washington on vacation in Marion, Ohio, for a week, Dorothy Parker's less clever sister is reported to have remarked, "How could they tell?"
  • 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt takes a much-needed therapeutic trip to Warm Springs, Ga., where he had founded the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation. Father Coughlin calls him a tool of the international Jewish Banker Communist conspiracy, though it is unclear whether or not this was related to the vacation.
  • 1961 The Kennedys popularize taking vacations without hats when they're seen not wearing hats in Hyannis Port. Southern "Dixiecrats" in Congress take to the floor to denounce not wearing hats as a violation of States' Rights, specifically Georgia's law calling for Negroes seen in public hatless to be fined or imprisoned.
  • 2001 George W. Bush takes August off. A group of particularly critical political opponents responds by murdering thousands of Americans.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at apareene@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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American History Barack Obama George W. Bush John F. Kennedy War Room