"The president's on vacation; can America survive?"
This has been the not-too-subtle theme of the hundreds of stories about President Bush spending "too much," "a lot" or a "record-breaking amount" of time on his ranch in Texas. Dozens of news outlets have pointed out that Bush's vacation ties Richard Nixon's 30-day record for longest presidential respite. Of course, by heading back to Washington on the Friday before Labor Day instead of the following Monday, Bush is managing to avoid breaking the record after all.
Still, I wish he'd stuck it out. By going back to Washington early, Bush is surrendering to the psychological demands of the permanent government, particularly the press corps. There's a reigning mythology in the nation's capital that America is "driven" by the president, and when he's not at the wheel the whole country might smash into a light pole or a slow-moving cow.
"News that by month's end President Bush will have spent more than four out of every 10 days of his presidency en route to or on vacation proves - once again - that his hero is former President Reagan," write Ann McFeatters of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who doesn't believe comparisons to Reagan are flattering.
I wish the comparison was more apt. Unfortunately from the outset, the Bush team has been working hard to make sure his trip home doesn't "appear" like a holiday. "It's not a vacation," the White House insisted in endless reports, "it's a 'Home to the Heartland Tour.'" On the other hand, Reagan saw no need to apologize for taking time off.
Sure, Bush's example is a lot better than Bill Clinton's. Clinton took a poll to figure out where he should vacation. His preferred vacations involved late night gab-fests with Martha's Vineyard socialites and media moguls.
Still, what is truly bothersome is the idea that the United States needs a 24-hour president. This is partly a relic of the Cold War, when it made sense to have a commander-in-chief always at the ready. And there's some media bias, too. The first President Bush was grilled like a kielbasa for playing too much golf and for traveling abroad too much, even though Bill Clinton played as much golf and traveled even more without much comment.
But there's another dynamic at work here. The permanent government and the media that reports on it have become addicted to the idea that the federal government must always be in motion, always doing something. If the president can spend time doing nothing, this thinking goes, then something important must not be getting done.
But that's simply not true. I've spent the last week driving across the country (I'm writing this in Missoula, Montana) and so far I haven't seen a single person run around in a state of panic over the fact that President Bush isn't moving a lot of paper around in Washington.
Just because the president is away from his desk right now doesn't mean America stops. Every day, people are making decisions about where to send their kids to college, whether they should start a new business and what to have for dinner. And not one of them would make a different decision if the president was zooming through the night in his office on No-Doz.
The last president to truly understand this was Calvin Coolidge. Not only did he not see the need to work while on vacation, he didn't see the need to work that much while at work. When asked to name his administration's chief accomplishment, he declared, "minding our own business."
Coolidge summed up his philosophy succinctly: "When you see 10 problems rolling down the road, if you don't do anything, nine of them will roll into a ditch before they get to you." When farmers got in trouble, Coolidge refused to purchase surplus corn. After all, he argued, the government isn't in the grocery business.
This wasn't apathy or heartlessness - though your kids' history textbooks will tell you differently. This was a recognition that the federal government wasn't intended to be in the "make the world better business." Coolidge was aggressive and proactive when necessary, but when it wasn't necessary he didn't muck things up by searching for new "problems."
This idea has been forgotten. Listen carefully to a typical nightly news report. Invariably the correspondent will state a problem - kids scraping their knees, cats and dogs not getting along, whatever - and then he or she will implicitly or explicitly suggest that there's a role for government in the solution.
Alas, I fear that Bush's capitulation is a sign that we may never get another Coolidge. The president has been redefined as a national Mr. Fix-it. The Bush administration is even coming up with initiatives to try to fix the "problem" of grandparents not getting enough e-mail from their grandkids.
"If the federal government should go out of existence," Coolidge once said, "the common run of the people would not detect the difference for a considerable length of time." That would still be true, if we could let it be.