EDGARTOWN, Massachusetts (Reuters) – August has a way of interfering with a U.S. president’s best-laid plans for vacation. Just ask Barack Obama. Or Bill Clinton. Or either of the presidents named Bush.
Obama, determined to take a week off from his typically grinding schedule, interrupted his vacation briefly on Thursday to condemn the killing of hundreds of people in a violent crackdown on demonstrators by Egypt’s military government.
But at the risk of a new round of criticism, Obama promptly went on to play golf after the morning statement.
On Friday, after he was briefed on Egypt by his national security adviser, Susan Rice, he was out riding bikes with his wife Michelle and two daughters.
The message to be gleaned? He will not be held hostage by world events.
It is a maxim of presidential power that the commander-in-chief is never really off. The nuclear launch codes carried by a military aide are always close at hand. Modern technology allows the president to work anywhere.
But when world events intervene, presidents must draw a careful line. They must appear confident, engaged and responsive, and not seem to be overwhelmed by crises.
August is not always kind to the president.
George W. Bush provided the type of image that presidents want to avoid when, in August 2002 while vacationing in Kennebunkport, Maine, he opted to react to a suicide bombing in Israel while at the first tee box at Cape Arundel golf course.
“I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now, watch this drive,” said Bush, who proceeded to swing away.
The image did not help a president who had received high marks months earlier for his response to the September 11, 2001, attacks, only to see them dissipate when the Iraq war turned unpopular after the 2003 invasion. With troops in harm’s way, he avoided playing golf and took up mountain biking.
His father, President George H.W. Bush, faithfully traveled to his Walker’s Point oceanfront home in Kennebunkport, where he confronted some sort of August vacation challenge nearly every year of his term from 1989 to 1993.
“What is it about August?” he once asked reporters.
Aboard his boat offshore Walker’s Point, Bush worked on the war plan to repel Iraq’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait and adjust U.S. policy toward a “new world order” while fishing with Brent Scowcroft, his national security adviser.
Being able to deliver good news to Americans helps a vacationing president avoid bad optics.
CHANGE THE SUBJECT
In August of 1991, the elder Bush was again out on his boat when he got the word to come back and take a call from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who had just survived a short coup.
Wearing a multi-colored wind jacket that would horrify modern-day image meisters, Bush appeared before the press outside a weather-beaten building at Walker’s Point to tell the world what had happened.
“It’s been an emotional day,” he said.
Sometimes a world crisis can change the subject.
It was in August 1998 that President Bill Clinton was on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, reeling from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. On August 20, reporters were expecting him to play golf.
Instead his motorcade deposited him at the White House press filing center and he announced U.S. military strikes against “one of the most active terrorist bases in the world” in Afghanistan.
It was Americans’ first encounter with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. And whether intended or not, it provided an important diversion from the Lewinsky scandal.
“Now I am returning to Washington to be briefed by my national security team on the latest information,” Clinton said, before rushing back to Washington.
He then wasted little time getting back to his Martha’s Vineyard holiday.