• U.S.

Learning to Be Lazy

5 minute read
Michael Duffy

Bill Clinton normally has trouble getting away from it all. Frustrated aides report that he and Hillary have a habit of delegating to each other the details of their vacation, which is one reason why everything gets decided so late. Last August, on the day he was to depart for Martha’s Vineyard, former chief of staff Mack McLarty nearly had to drag the workaholic Clinton from the Oval Office, lest the American public think he was, as another aide put it, “weird.” Naturally, when Clinton arrived on the island a few hours later, he canceled his scheduled golf game and fell asleep — for nearly 24 hours.

This year the Clintons couldn’t wait to escape. They chose to return to the relative seclusion of the Vineyard rather than hunt for an alternative summer retreat. They gave up former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s compound of modest cottages for the more comfortable spread of Richard Friedman, a Democratic real estate developer from Boston. Clinton no longer sounded like the office grind. For weeks he talked longingly about the beach, and scooted out of town less than 24 hours after the Senate voted final approval on the crime bill. He and Hillary vowed to stay through Labor Day and beyond. “They want to rest. They want to have fun. They’ve had a hard year,” says an adviser.

After nearly two years in office, Clinton is finally learning to relax. Last year, ignoring the advice of almost every living former President, the Clintons avoided spending weekends at Camp David because the Navy-run enclave felt too much like an armed camp. But this year, pressed by Vice President Gore and chief of staff Leon Panetta, the Clintons have fled more than a dozen times to the presidential hideaway. Clinton’s relief at just being out of Washington was palpable when he arrived on the Vineyard late last week. He started his first day with an early-morning, 4.5-mile jog, then went golfing with two foursomes that included financier Warren Buffett and software tycoon Bill Gates. “It feels good,” Clinton said. “I’m not sure it’s real yet.”

The two Clintons have different styles of leisure. The First Lady is drawn to empty, sandy stretches where the family can take long walks. The President is enamored of the social scene: last year he was the one who pushed to go to the parties of Washington Post chairwoman Katharine Graham and Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan or just to go out to eat. “I don’t care about the food,” he would say. “Just give me a fun place.”

If White House schedulers were to plot the President’s vacation days on paper, much of this week would read simply, “Chelsea Time.” Last summer Clinton typically woke late, read the papers, lingered over the crossword at breakfast and then settled down on the floor for games of hearts and Scrabble with Hillary and Chelsea. Clinton’s vacation is, above all, a family reunion.

Golf is another part of the Clinton cure. The President has said he wants to break 80 before his 50th birthday, and regular golfing partners say his liberal use of the mulligan — the free shot given to duffers who botch a stroke — probably makes that an attainable goal. The golf course is one of the few places where Clinton can quickly shut the presidency out of his mind. He does not tolerate shop talk on the links and has said he likes the game because he can play it slowly. When an aide approached him last year on a Vineyard course, Clinton barked, “Don’t bring me any bad news.”

But Clinton’s vacations could never be all play and no work. In the past they have proved to be pivotal moments when Clinton used his time off to clear the cobwebs from his brain, evaluate his performance and redirect his presidency. Last year he spent his afternoons reading Yale professor Stephen Carter’s book The Culture of Disbelief, about the hostility against religion in American public life. Clinton was so affected by the work that he returned to Washington in September and gave a series of speeches about how hard it is to bring about change in a modern society, an insight that proved prophetic of the year that followed. The speeches, which focused not on programs and policies but on the family-centered values that strengthen the country, were well received and helped his approval ratings reach record levels last autumn.

Aides believe that a similar course correction is in the works and will probably be refined during those lazy afternoons on the porch. Coming off the close victory on crime and facing a possible defeat on health care, Clinton has been thinking a great deal lately about how to recast his goals for the next two years. Aides know that a more conservative Congress next year means Clinton will have to move to the middle by concentrating on welfare reform, reviving the middle-class tax cut and making cuts in entitlement programs. They do not claim it will be easy. “The public wants us to stand by our principles,” said a White House official. “But they also want us to break gridlock. So the question becomes, How do you make political compromise honorable?”

Aides anticipate that this week Clinton will go some way toward resolving this dilemma, which is why they have scheduled a speech at the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans two days after he returns from vacation. That address will be followed by a series of other events that, as one aide put it, will “allow him to explain what he cares about.” In the cooler quiet of summer’s end, it is a message that has a chance to be heard.

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