The War of 1812 was over. His administration was nearly at an end. So Madison, tired and eager to get away, slipped out of Washington in June 1816 and didn’t return until October. His four-month vacation was the longest of any president with the exception of John Adams, though Adams’s case, as you’ll see, is complicated. (It wasn’t really a vacation.) In other years his vacations lasted three months.
Seven Months on the Farm
In his celebrated biography, David McCullough insists that John Adams made greater sacrifices on behalf of the Revolution than almost any other Founding Father. Stingingly, McCullough observes, Jefferson went home during a critical moment in the deliberations of the Continental Congress while Adams remained, fighting illness, the flies and his fellow politicians. Poor Abigail had to put up with long absences.
But in the summer of 1798, during Adams’s presidency, when Abigail fell ill–at the height of our undeclared war with France–Adams ran home to be with her. He remained with her on their farm in Massachusetts seven long months. No other president stayed away from the capital as long. Enemies joked that he had abdicated.
Jefferson never liked to be away from Monticello and in 1805 decided he need not be away as long as previously during his administration. He left for home mid-July and did not come back until October, setting the precedent for long presidential vacations which Madison was to improve upon. (As vice president, in 1799, Jefferson had remained away from the capital even longer–ten months.)
His Mysterious Vacations
About a year into his presidency, Arthur developed an illness that was to kill him: Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder, which in the nineteenth century was always fatal. Ailing and losing weight, Arthur began traveling around the country in search of climates more congenial to his condition than swampy Washington. On one trip–to Florida–he nearly died. His last year in office he repeatedly voyaged west, attracting crowds along with critical headlines. Why on earth was Chet Arthur doing so much traveling people wanted to know. He never told them. When reporters asked if he was ill he pretended nothing was wrong, though on one occasion he had holed up in New York City because he was too ill to make it back to the capital. He died shortly after leaving the presidency. Only then did Americans begin to understand the reason for his mysterious vacations. (He was, incidentally, the first president to lie about his health. None had lied before him because they did not have to–the press did not make a president’s health an issue of public debate until Garfield’s death. Garfield had lingered for three long months after he had been shot. Newspaper circulation shot up when reporters began providing daily presidential health bulletins.)
It’s Cancer, Sir
His second term was barely a week old when the economy collapsed. It was at this moment that Cleveland discovered he had cancer. His doctor told him an operation was essential to survival. Worried that the news might further destabilize Wall Street, Cleveland chose to keep his cancer a secret. That July when he took his annual vacation he underwent a furtive operation to remove the cancerous tissue, which extended up into his eye socket. The operation took place aboard a yacht to decrease the chances of discovery. Afterward, Cleveland retreated to Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts to recover. The country finally learned the truth about Cleveland’s summer vacation in 1917, when one of his doctors related the story in an article in the Saturday Evening Post. By then Cleveland was long dead.
Vacations Aren’t Good For You
Eisenhower was just a few months into his first term when he took his first vacation, in Augusta, Georgia, at his favorite golf club. There he suffered what now appears to have been his first presidential heart attack. (He’d had another apparent heart attack in 1949, which was covered up.) His spokesman put out the word that Ike was suffering from indigestion. Unfortunately, Ike could not afford to rest. The very next day he was scheduled to return to Washington to deliver his first major foreign policy address, in which he was to hold out an olive branch to the Soviet Union, which was undergoing change as a result of the recent death of Joseph Stalin. Despite his illness Ike insisted on returning to Washington and delivered his speech as scheduled, though he nearly collapsed. To steady himself he had to grab hold of the lectern. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He finally succeeded in finishing the speech only by skipping whole paragraphs.In 1955 Ike was on a vacation in Colorado when he was struck by yet another heart attack. It was serious and this time the country was told everything. Ike remained in convalescence for months. When he was able to return, he made frequent trips for relaxation to Camp David, the presidential retreat established by FDR. Ike when he became president had wanted to get rid of Camp David as an unnecessary extravagance–and as an all too vivid symbol of his famous Democratic predecessor. Mamie had forced him to keep it.
The Western White House
Ronald Reagan loved his ranch in Santa Barbara, California. According to the Associated Press,” Reagan spent all or part of 335 days in Santa Barbara over his eight-year presidency.”
The Margin of Error is Plus or Minus Two Points
Clinton, famously, loved to party with the rich and famous in Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons. But in 1995 and 1996 he went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for his summer vacation, on the advice of Dick Morris, who cited polls showing it would be to Clinton’s advantage. Even Morris later admitted it was a dumb idea.
GEORGE W. BUSH
Five weeks in Crawford
George W. Bush took more days of vacation than Ronald Reagan. He split his vacation time between the ranch in Texas (77 trips) and his family estate in Maine for a total of 879 days. In 2005 he spent five weeks at the Texas ranch.
Initially it wasn’t Barack Obama, but his wife, who received flack for taking a vacation. In 2010 Michelle Obama, children in tow, went on vacation to Andalusia, Spain, just as new reports indicated the loss of 131,000 jobs. In 2013 and 2014 Barack Obama was criticized for vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard.