'Home a loan': Clintons take a family vacation

September 03, 1994|By Angie Cannon | Angie Cannon,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- No Holiday Inn for Bill Clinton. No rented beachfront condo for the president.

When Mr. Clinton takes a vacation, he tends to borrow a luxurious home from well-heeled, well-connected folks whom he often doesn't know that well -- a practice some say looks $H questionable.

On their current getaway, which ends Wednesday, Mr. Clinton and his family are borrowing Boston developer Richard Friedman's Martha's Vineyard estate, complete with jogging trails, tennis courts, horse stables, swimming and boating.

In the spring, they relaxed at a three-story Tudor-style mansion (17 bedrooms, 13 bathrooms and three kitchens) in Coronado, Calif., owned by M. Larry Lawrence, a major Democratic contributor whom Mr. Clinton named ambassador to Switzerland.

Last year, they stayed at the beachfront Hilton Head, S.C., home of West Virginia business man Paul Bob Burge; the posh Vail, Colo., condominium of tire heir Leonard Firestone; and the Martha's Vineyard home of former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara.

After the 1992 election, the Clintons raised a few eyebrows by staying at an oceanfront estate near Santa Barbara, Calif., that was leased by their Hollywood producer friends, Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason.

Unlike many of his recent predecessors, Mr. Clinton does not own a vacation home. The Clintons have a net worth between $633,015 and $1.62 million, and Mr. Clinton earns $200,000 a year.

Aides have told reporters Mr. Clinton is forced to find digs so he can get a break from the grueling pressures of the White House.

"It's not that much unlike other families who go to their friends' beach cottages or cabins in the mountains," said deputy White House press secretary Ginny Terzano.

"It is difficult to find a place that is not an intrusion on the community where the president and first lady will be staying and a place that accommodates the usual security detail that goes along with the president," Ms. Terzano said.

Legally, Mr. Clinton is required to disclose gifts worth more than $250, but his May 1994 financial disclosure forms don't list any vacation donations, which would be worth thousands of dollars. A Vineyard real estate agent, for example, says a house near the Clintons' retreat rents for $4,500 a week.

Although White House aides have said the law doesn't spell out anything about lending vacation homes, some observers believe the practice raises conflict-of-interest questions.

"While it is not illegal, it raises questions about the propriety of it all," says Alex Benes, managing director of the Center for Public Integrity, an independent government watchdog organization in Washington. "It is entirely possible that they want nothing but to help the president relax. But you wonder what someone who lends the president his home wants for themselves or their company."

Pamela Gilbert of Public Citizen, another government accountability group, agreed that the appearance is troubling.

"President Clinton would not be offered this home if he were not the president," she said. "These people are barely even friends of his. Who wouldn't want to lend their vacation home to the president? Most of them have business before the United States government."

The message to a public disenchanted with Washington is even more disconcerting, Ms. Gilbert said.

"Borrowing billionaires' vacation homes is the epitome of being out of touch with what the rest of us go through," she said. "He makes a nice salary. Pay some rent, like the rest of us."

The extra rub with Mr. Clinton is that he isn't always well-acquainted with his hosts, who usually just hand over their homes. Mr. Burge and Mr. Firestone, in fact, contribute much more to Republicans, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent Washington organization that studies money in politics.

George Grassmuck, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Michigan, says past presidents have tended to own their vacation escapes. "These people were not borrowing from other folk," he said.

Jack Kennedy had Hyannisport, Mass. Lyndon B. Johnson had his ranch at Stonewall, Texas.

Richard M. Nixon bought a place in Key Biscayne, Fla., and later San Clemente, Calif. He also was put up by Robert H. Abplanalp. Gerald R. Ford owned a ski spot near Vail, Colo. Jimmy Carter rented retreats at St. Simons Island, and later at Sapelo Island, off the Georgia coast, and went home to Plains, Ga.

Ronald Reagan spent 335 days of his eight years in office at his 688-acre ranch near Santa Barbara. He also used to stay at the sprawling Palm Springs, Calif., estate owned by millionaire publisher Walter Annenberg.

George Bush sought refuge at his summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine, and was a guest of family friend Will Farish at his homes in Florida and Texas.

"Most of these people were all pretty well off," said Mr. Grassmuck, a presidency scholar. "The wealthy don't find themselves borrowing. It is apparent that the Clintons don't have a great deal of money."

But he says there's nothing wrong with borrowing, noting that security logistics limit a president's options. "For the most part, people have accepted this idea," he said.

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