Newsweek Defends Obama's Leisure But Mocked Bush's Working Vacations at Texas Ranch

While Newsweek's David Graham is hard at work defending President Obama's summertime leisure -- "A Short History of Presidential Vacation Outrage" -- by insisting that the press corps always complains about any president's vacation habits, it's instructive that he failed to indict his own magazine.

"War on terrorism stalled, economy on precipice, time for a month on the Crawford ranch."

Accompanied by a disapproving down arrow, that's how the August 5, 2002 Newsweek feature "Conventional Wisdom" derided President Bush's working vacation a mere three months before midterm elections in his first term.

Elsewhere in Newsweek's coverage at the time, writers put the term working vacation into derisive quote marks, and otherwise presented President Bush's time away from Washington, including a quasi-campaign swing called the "Heartland Tour," as a nakedly political move to bolster his sagging approval numbers.

From Martha Brant's August 7 "Web exclusive" entitled "Look Who's Back":

The White House went on the defensive: aides whipped up a WESTERN WHITE HOUSE logo to tack up behind the podium at the makeshift briefing room at the Crawford Elementary School. They cut his vacation short a few days, apparently so it wouldn't be the longest on record (which is held by Richard Nixon at 31 days). The Republican National Committee did a focus group on the president's vacation. Pollsters found that most people believe that the president is never really on vacation.

That's the line they're sticking with this year. The president, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer explained the other day, "is going to bring the White House with him to Crawford." But all their efforts didn't stop Letterman from making fun of Bush's vacation again this year. The other night he gave the "Top Ten Signs President Bush Needs A Vacation." No. 7: It's been, what, two weeks since he went fishing?

Late-night comedy and the RNC focus group agree on one thing: Bush needs to remain proactive on vacation, especially now with the Iraq situation bubbling up and the economy flagging. This month Bush will meet with his defense secretary as well as the president of Mexico. He will host an economic forum at Baylor University in Waco. And he will visit at least 15 cities, spending about half his vacation time on public events in politically significant states. At least once a week, he'll attend a so-called "political activity" (read: fund-raiser).

But the main thrust of August is what the White House bills as Bush's "Home to the Heartland" return tour. This is Hughes's specialty: keeping Bush in touch with average people and their issues. He'll appear at events with "real Americans," as one top aide explained, and talk to them about their economic "concerns." There's nothing like a photo op with a prize-winning pig at the Iowa State Fair to get out the message: I'm not from Washington, D.C., where pork has a whole different meaning.

A year earlier and prior to the 9/11 attacks, Anna Quindlen took a different tack, calling on President Bush in an August 27, 2001 piece to push for European-style August vacations for everyone:

Mandate the closing of everything else in the country during the month. The liberals would love the energy savings, the lights off in office buildings, the fossil fuels unburned. Conservationists would be thrilled as national parks and forests revive without the tramp-tramp-tramp of millions of tourists. Health-care professionals would breathe a sigh of relief as Americans walked to the homes of friends, elevating their heart rates and, in the process, seeing people they've been meaning to get together with for ages.

Republicans could tout the family-values aspect of four weeks in which parents would be more or less forced to stay home and talk to their children. And talk about community activism! Instead of government programs or even nonprofit organizations taking meals to the homebound by van, ordinary Americans could find it in their hearts to carry a nice plate of pasta next door. Newspapers and news magazines would close, too, and television could run previously shown programs. (Whoops! I guess someone already took care of that one!) George W could mash his finger without any snide Gerald Ford comments, and he could take his vacation without any editorializing.

No press, no mail, no bills, no sweat. The stock market would have a much-needed timeout; so would Major League Baseball, especially those Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Sure, there would be opposition from conservatives who object to big government's interfering with the right to develop blocked arteries and sleep difficulties. But research on work habits, as well as observation of the typical American tourist ripping though a European cathedral in record time, suggest that there's a deep-seated inability to relax in the U.S. of Type A. Each president brings to the job his own ethos, his own character, his own karma. George W. Bush has it in him to become the Vacation President, to lead a grateful and very tired nation to a place in which its citizens can stop and smell the onion rings. 

Fast forward nine years to President Obama's second year in office, and Newsweek's David Graham all but sighs at the supposed pettiness in the media when it comes to criticizing any president's vacation habits:

Despite White House spokesman Bill Burton's suggestion that the Obamas are being harassed with unprecedented attack for their recent leisure travels, this is nothing new. As Kenneth Walsh says, criticizing the president's cottage destination has become a cottage industry in D.C.: "No matter who is the president, the opposition party delights in criticizing him for taking time off, billing it as insensitive to the problems of struggling Americans, demonstrating aristocratic excess, or betraying some hedonistic character flaw." The only thing new are the creative methods of finding fault with taking time off.

Ironically what Newsweek is attempting to do is defend an approval rating-challenged liberal president by capitalizing on the public's low approval of the press corps. This is further amusing given the magazine's complaint in the February 1 "Conventional Wisdom" feature that Obama was too docile, not "fighting" hard enough.

"Yo, professor: CW wanted someone to fight for us. Not lead a bloodless seminar," Newsweek huffed as it lamented that "Obama celebrates first year [in office] by losing Kennedy seat to GOP. Will he finally take the gloves off?"

Perhaps Newsweek is now convinced that the more pugilistic Obama sounds ahead of the midterms, the more damage he's likely to do for his allies in Congress. 

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters