Camp David's neighbors hope to see more of Clinton

November 23, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

THURMONT -- Here, where the hustle and bustle of Baltimore and the mercilessness of Washington's workweek give way to a slower sense of pace, sweeping vistas, thick woodlands, waterfalls, trout streams and hiking paths, lies a perfect place for presidents to get away from it all.

But even though Camp David's only a half-hour away by helicopter, President Clinton has largely resisted its temptations. He has made the trip only three times in 10 months. But Mr. Clinton is scheduled to come to the retreat with his family for at least two days of relaxation during the Thanksgiving holiday.

Publicly, residents of Thurmont and the surrounding mountain hamlets say it's no big deal to them; the president can come and go as he wishes. But beneath the I-could-care-less veneer beats a strong pride in their town -- the closest to the presidential retreat -- and a hope that he will, finally, discover the charms of Frederick County.

"I don't know why they don't come up," says Irene Lawson, a hostess at the Mountain Gate Plaza Family Restaurant. "He's missing a lot."

"It's just another day to us when a president is here, it doesn't change anything," says Marlene Megee, raking leaves in front of her home on East Main. "But everybody talks about it. You know, when we travel and we tell someone where we live, we always say, 'It's near Camp David.' "

At Hoffman's grocery store down the street, the owners and customers used to line up on the sidewalk as President George Bush's motorcade went by after Marine One landed down the street. Mr. Bush so loved Camp David that in his first year in office he spent all or part of 73 days there on 23 visits, including four days at Thanksgiving and four days at Christmas.

He played golf up in Frederick, once walked around Thurmont shopping, and generally made Camp David his second home away from home.

"Bush liked it up here -- and we liked him," says Sharon Hoffman, co-owner of the store that bears her name. "The town just gets a little busier when a president is up here. Sightseers come in to the store. . . . When President Clinton was elected, we were hoping he'd continue, but I don't think he likes it. . . . He likes parties and cities and excitement, I think."

White House aides give varying reasons for the sparse number of Camp David visits. An activist president, he's just been terribly busy, they explain. Sometimes they cite his allergies. Or the fact that Chelsea's friends are in Washington. Or they agree that it is just too quiet a retreat for a notoriously gregarious president.

One aide speculates that when Mr. Clinton found out there was no golf course on the Camp David grounds, he just couldn't see the point.

Mostly the point is solitude, however, and some believe that as Mr. Clinton continues his hectic presidency he, his wife and those around him will see increased value in a place where the best thing to do is read, think, or walk through the woods.

Franklin D. Roosevelt used to read detective novels or play solitaire at Camp David, a place he named Camp Shangri-La in 1942 after converting it to a wartime presidential retreat. President Dwight D. Eisenhower installed indoor plumbing and named it after his grandson.

In time would come other improvements, including a bowling alley, where President Lyndon B. Johnson and wife Lady Bird Johnson would while away the hours.

The president probably most closely associated with Camp David today is Jimmy Carter, though not for his ability to relax here. The place probably represents the high -- and low -- points of his administration.

Mr. Carter got Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat to sit face-to-face and hammer out their historic peace accord at Camp David. It is also the place where, when things were going badly, he sequestered himself and his staff, emerging after 10 days to give the nation the so-called "malaise" speech, in which he seemed to be blaming the problems of his administration on the voters who elected him.

From Thurmont, Camp David lies west, out Main Street where it turns into Maryland Route 77, past Cunningham Falls State Park, up the gorge of Big Hunting Creek, one of the best catch-and-release trout streams around, and up beyond Catoctin Mountain National Park.

At Deerfield Road, a visitor starts swinging around to the right, up the backside of the mountain, past a farm with a red caboose sitting in the field and past the barracks where the military officers who staff and secure the place lies tucked into the side of the mountain.

"I've lived here all my life and never met a president," said Dick Wiles, a 43-year-old carpenter who is repairing a house on the mountain road. "Still, it's nice to know you've got something important close by."

If Thurmont residents want Mr. Clinton to come more often, they just might have an inducement he'll like. This July, the Moser family opened up the back nine on its new Maple Run Golf Course just a mile outside the town line.

The Secret Service has checked the place out, and apparently it passed muster.

"They said the next time they called, it would be because he's coming," said Dawn Moser. "Wouldn't that be nice?"

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