August is usually an awful month for news out of the nation's capital, and so the national press will try hard to make something out of nothing. Here we go again with what's becoming a rite of passage: Media attacks on Republican presidents' vacation habits.
Do you remember how Ronald Reagan was constantly accused of taking too much time off at the ranch in California? It was a curious line of reasoning for the sages of the newsroom, since they spent the rest of the year warning America that Reagan was hard at work slashing the hearts out of social programs and bringing the world to the brink of nuclear destruction. Judging from the record of the 1980s, from a dramatic economic recovery to the collapse of the Soviet empire, who now dares argue that Reagan didn't make efficient use of his time? Who would like to argue that the country would have been better off with another term of hard-working Jimmy Carter?
The first President George Bush was also victimized by attack editing. His attempts to take a little time off to play golf or ride around in his cigarette boat were presented as the insensitive indulgences of the privileged at a time of recession and/or war.
It's no surprise that reporters didn't have the same sense of opportunistic outrage when Bill Clinton went on vacation. No one rushed for the microphones when he couldn't decide on a destination until he'd taken a poll. (Try Wyoming, the survey said.) For a few years, he took a true snooty Washington reporter's vacation, hanging out in Martha's Vineyard with the beautiful (well, at least liberal) people like Walter Cronkite and the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Republicans scored a few political points as the feel-your-pain Clintons spent a week sloshing around on yachts with the Brie-and-Chablis crowd, but only on talk radio. The "mainstream" media were above this sniping, you see.
The all-time record for willingly gullible vacation coverage came before the Monica Lewinsky story burst. White House aides were shocked! Outraged! Why, someone had captured video of Bill and Hillary slow dancing without music in their swimming suits on the beach. The 89 percent pro-Clinton media tried -- oh, how they tried! -- to tell us how tender these lovebirds really were. Americans just laughed at the spectacle, a preferable reaction to its alternative -- throwing up.
Now, as George W. Bush leaves for a dusty hot spell at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, his first big "vacation" since Sept. 11, the press is back to carrying the Democratic water that Dubya is just so darn insensitive in times of crisis.
USA Today devoted a front-page article to an interview they had with Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, who trotted out all the old shopworn lines about the need for presidents to show they're serious and do everything but plant a cot in the Oval Office. USA Today did not suggest in this attack article that perhaps Gov. Glendening is hardly the man with all the moral authority about using his position solely for the people. Last time we checked, the governor had dumped his Hillary-esque wife, Frances, for some recreational office time with a top aide who looked young enough to be his daughter and who then became his latest wife.
On NBC, for the second year in a row, "Today" host Katie Couric started out the Bush vacation by asking rhetorically (and wishfully?) if "taking a month off" might come back to haunt the president. It's a silly question, if for no other reason than the action-starved media won't allow a day or two off before forcing the chief executive to make a trip or a speech to keep them from sniping.
The Bush gang is far too polite and deferential to argue, of course. But wouldn't it be grand if some aide were to lose his cool, just for a moment, and point out that the president's job is a wee bit more stressful than a TV anchor's, even if she is making about 30 times more than he does? Bush doesn't get to pass off his dead-serious duties to some puffball substitute host. He, like all presidents, is on call 24 hours per day. That became his existence the moment he was sworn into the office, and so it will remain until the day he leaves. For the president of the United States there is no such thing as a real vacation from work, ever. Leave him alone to enjoy what little rest he can.