GWB's vacation fixation

Posted: Aug 12, 2001 12:00 AM
It seems everyone is concerned about President Bush and vacations. Some commentary is simply informational, idiomatic questions put and answers given, showing nothing more than workaday curiosity. "How many vacation days a year does the president of the United States get?" Anybody can answer that one, right? "Does he have to schedule his vacation?" Uh, yes. "How does the Secret Service protect the president while he's on vacation?" With guns. "Which members of the staff are required to go on vacation with him?" Eeny-meeny-miney-moe.

We have seen any number of rundowns on presidential days spent away from the White House. We read how many days Bush spent in Washington and compare the figures with days spent out of town by his predecessors in the first six months. We can add days spent in Kennebunkport, and view them as vacation time. The toters run into problems when needing to count days spent abroad, because these are presumably work-time days, in no relevant way different from days spent in the White House.

But commentary goes on and at progressive levels of hostility. Aboard Slate Inc. an exchange comes in between James Wolcott and Zoe Heller, he of Vanity Fair, she of the London Daily Telegraph. Both are voluptuously splenetic on the subject of Bush. From Wolcott: "It seems so right that George Bush should spend part of the day lending his sweat equity to Habitat for Humanity in the Texas heat, a transparent charade to recast himself as a compassionate conservative for all those moderate Republican women voters who are less inclined than men to see the world reduced to ash." (What that means is that W. doesn't particularly care if global warming eliminates Life on Earth.)

What presidents do on their vacation tends to be the subject of ridicule or condescension. We recall that Ronald Reagan spent time chopping down trees and splitting wood. Abe Lincoln probably wouldn't have spent vacation time doing this, having had enough of it as a young man. But if he had, somebody (most likely in Slate) would have observed that splitting the skulls of Union generals would have been more to the point.

But on vacation or off, Bush can't win, in Wolcott's view of things. "To me, the most arrogant thing about Bush is his rugged humility. That earnest tone he pipes into his voice when he talks about consulting our allies on the challenges ahead or expresses concern about an issue that he clearly isn't going to do anything about. I don't believe he's a nice, caring soul."

Zoe agrees. "He is a horrid, spoiled little boy and a pretty disastrous president. But I have to say, I am enjoying his brazen displays of sloth. There's something irresistibly funny about his endless holidays and snoozes and tootling around in the gym -- and it's only made funnier by his handlers' attempts to cast the hooky-playing as crucial periods of reflection, or whatever."

It doesn't matter what Bush does, he is "on vacation." I am sensitive to the point because year after year, returning from my six weeks in Switzerland, I am asked, How did you enjoy your skiing vacation? I reply limply that I wrote a book. It would not matter if Bush were as industrious as Harry Truman at Key West; that is the slant his critics want to record.

But look for the silver lining! Ms. Heller found it: "Bush's lack of appetite for his job may, in fact, be the one way he manages to endear himself to the international community. The Europeans, in particular, tend to be horrified by the work ethic of the American professional class. Bush may have reneged on Kyoto, but at least this is a guy who understands the importance of a siesta."

Another correspondent comments with some dismay on the terrain to which Mr. Bush retreats. "GWB's taste in vacation spots fits in right along with rusty pickup trucks, cheap shotguns, and other ersatz proclamations of Wild West 'manhood' more than a century after the western frontier closed for good. As effete as Kennebunkport and Greenwich may be, they are preferable to dust, tumbleweeds and ignorance."

This correspondent, an entrepreneur of exotic vacations by supersonic air travel, closes his commentary: "It occurs to me that Skull and Bones has rather low standards. How else to explain GWB's being tapped?" There is a protocol against alumni answering such questions, but the answer in this case is of course self-spoken: The classmates who elected him to Skull and Bones knew he would become president.