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What vacation? Even on Vineyard, Obama still in news spotlight

Philip Elliott

OAK BLUFFS, Mass. — Barack Obama’s first presidential vacation began with a hurricane, was interrupted for a major economic announcement and ended with a sad eulogy for a famous friend.

So much for the relaxation plan.

After a lightning-paced first seven months in office, it was hardly the long week of quiet time to catch his breath that Obama had sought.

“I think that when I said that the president wanted you guys to take long walks on the beach and relax and just enjoy yourselves and that there would be no news, maybe it was a little bit of wishful thinking,” a slightly sheepish spokesman Bill Burton told reporters.

In fact, Burton had brought his own wife to Martha’s Vineyard, expecting a light week.

It’s practically written into the presidential job description that no commander in chief can take a true turn-it-all-off vacation. He gets briefings from aides almost every day. World events invariably intrude. It’s almost become a joke that the term “slow August” doesn’t exist for a president.

And for this president, the intense interest in all things Obama makes private time even more challenging.

“The president, when he ran for this office, knew that there would be no days where he was completely down,” Burton said.

Still, all presidents spend part of their summers away from miserably sticky Washington and some of the stresses of the job.

Thomas Jefferson left the capital in mid-July and didn’t return until October, setting an early precedent.

The modern era hardly allows for that much time away. Still, Ronald Reagan spent 335 days of his eight years in office — nearly one full year — at his ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he rode horses and wore his cowboy hat. Bill Clinton spent summers here on Martha’s Vineyard, in the Hamptons or in Jackson Hole, Wyo. George W. Bush often spent weeks at time at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Obama is also hardly the first president to find his RandR interrupted.

In the run-up to the Persian Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush planned a three-week vacation in Kennebunkport, Maine. He ended up ordering military reserves into battle from his seaside home.

His son was home in Texas in August 2001 when he received a CIA briefing paper warning him of al-Qaida’s intentions to strike the United States. The younger Bush was also in Crawford when Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans and devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. His presidency never recovered from his response to the storm, including his decision to not return to Washington until two days after it hit.

It could be argued that Obama needed a summer rest as much or more than any predecessor, given his unusually lengthy road to the White House and the extraordinary number of crises he confronted upon taking office. With a deep recession and two wars to deal with, Obama’s hair has gone visibly grayer in just seven months.

He chose to schedule just a week on this idyllic island off the Massachusetts coast to recuperate and recharge for what promises to be a tough fall of health care debates and who knows what else.

The week got shortened at the very start by Hurricane Bill, which delayed Air Force One’s departure from Washington on Sunday, Aug. 23.

Then, Obama chose to announce last Tuesday, Aug. 25, that he would nominate Ben Bernanke for a second term as Federal Reserve chairman. Bernanke’s term doesn’t expire until early next year, but the president decided that speculation needed to be put to rest. The men appeared together for the announcement in business attire — minus ties, in a bow to vacation informality.

Then came the somber news last Wednesday, Aug. 26, of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s death the previous night on nearby Cape Cod.

With more bad weather — this time, Tropical Storm Danny — expected to bear down on his vacation spot, Obama’s plans were also reshuffled last Friday. He flew that night with his wife, Michelle, to Boston, where he delivered a eulogy at Kennedy’s funeral last Saturday before returning to the island.

That’s not to say Obama didn’t spend any genuine vacation time last week. He went to the beach and to the golf course several times. He played tennis with his wife and gone out to dinner.

Last Wednesday, he stopped at a waterfront restaurant in quaint Oak Bluffs to buy deep-fried clams and shrimp with his daughters, taking the two bags of food to the seaside home of White House senior adviser and close friend Valerie Jarrett. Later in the day, the girls visited a penny arcade downtown without their father.

Last Thursday, the Obama family went on a bike ride and then made a quick stop at a 16th-century lighthouse. He spent the latter part of the day golfing at a private course.

“We were out there on the basketball court … and he was talking as much trash as he usually does,” Burton said. “And that’s the rumor from the golf course as well. So it sounds like the relaxing is happening at an appropriate pace.”

Perhaps not appropriate enough, though. White House officials said the Obamas planned to give vacationing a second try with a five-day Labor Day weekend stay at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.

“The agenda is to try to get a little rest and relaxation,” Burton said. “He’s looking to get a break from his vacation.”

(Associated Press)