Never mind that presidents cover all their personal costs – food, accommodations, and so on – when they’re on family vacations. The Obamas’ real sin is traveling to fancy places like the Vineyard, where they stayed at a $50,000-per-week beachfront property in 2011. Americans want to imagine that our presidents are just like them, in recreation and everything else.
Only, they’re not. For most of US history, America’s chief executives have come from the upper-middle or wealthiest classes of society. And the richer these presidents are, ironically, the more humble their holidays may appear. That’s because they owned big vacation properties, where they could engage in regular-guy recreation. By contrast, presidents of more humble beginnings – like Obama or Bill Clinton – have both rented at ritzy locales like Martha’s Vineyard.
Theodore Roosevelt spent his presidential vacations hunting bear in Mississippi, wolves in Oklahoma, and mountain lions in Colorado. He camped for two weeks in Yellowstone National Park with naturalist John Burroughs, who wrote that Roosevelt could “stand calm and unflinching in the path of a charging grizzly” just as he stood up to “corporations and money powers” back in Washington. But Teddy was no ordinary rugged outdoorsman. He was the scion of a famously affluent New York family.
His distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who lost the use of his legs to polio, spent holidays in Warm Springs, Georgia, at a health resort. He liked the health resort so much that he bought it, and later converted it into a rehabilitation center for the physically disabled.
Presidential vacations didn’t become particularly controversial until the economic downturn of the 1970s. When Gerald R. Ford took his family on a ski vacation in Vail, Colorado – where he owned a condominium – he pointedly brought work with him, lest he be seen “shussing downhill while the nation’s economy was slipping in the same direction,” as one editorialist put it.