Even Bush's vacation gets public, political scrutiny

Texas ranch time broken for work, fund-raisers

August 02, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's decision to spend almost all of August at his Texas ranch has won him the support of at least one interest group:

The vacation lobby.

Hank Phillips, president of the National Tour Association, sees Bush's retreat from the capital as a great public-relations opportunity.

"For some people, it's almost like a guilt complex - they feel they're not pulling their weight if they take too much time for themselves," he says. "To see the leader of our country place a value on the need to relax says something really important."

Perhaps, but the more the White House talks about this vacation, the less fun it sounds. The Bush team is working to erase any suggestion that the president will be whooping it up on his 1,600-acre spread while the nation fights a war on terror and the economy struggles.

Bush's break begins, unofficially, today, when the president leaves on a three-day trip to Maine for a fund-raiser and some down time at the family compound in Kennebunkport.

After returning to work Monday, he distances himself from Washington's presidential politics - and New England's presidential parents - starting Tuesday with a 25-day stay on his ranch outside Crawford, Texas.

These days, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer is busy doing Bush vacation math for reporters, whose questioning of the trip Fleischer calls "a lot of silly potshots."

Subtracting all the working days from Bush's sojourn - including a meeting with Mexico's President Vicente Fox at the ranch, trips to 12 cities for policy events and fund raising for Republican candidates - he has come up with a new vacation estimate:

"About two weeks," Fleischer says, "just like everybody else."

Actually, the average American summer vacation is five nights, according to the National Tour Association, an industry group that reports Americans are vacationing less because of terrorism fears and financial strains.

Of course, their short trips might feel more restful - especially if you can skip the security briefings and the "Western White House" work routine.

The White House is irked by lamentations of an economic leadership void with Bush in Texas and Vice President Dick Cheney at his home in Jackson Hole, Wyo. They note Bush will hold an economic forum Aug. 13 in nearby Waco.

As for relaxation, Bush will do that behind a security gate at Prairie Chapel Ranch, a dusty spread with cows and canyons that Bush made home in 1999.

Many Americans say Bush is entitled to at least a month off.

"Can you think of a more demanding job?" asks Carol Rogan, manager of the New City Diner in New Orleans. "You really expect that man to be in the Oval Office 24-7, 365 days a year? That's overwork. You can burn out on anything - especially being president."

But to others, Bush's Texas summer puts him out of touch.

"I can't take a month off - I have to work for my money," says David Gerard, owner of the Born of Earth Spa in the New York suburb of Westport, Conn., where business recently dropped by 10 percent after the spouses of Wall Street brokers started saving their money. "Things are in the dumpster and this just shows Bush is ignoring what's going on."

Nevertheless, some analysts believe Bush stands to benefit by appearing in vacation mode. Whatever the reason for Bush's choice of getaways - some call his ranch an expression of his authentic Texas-style individualism, others call it a contrived use of heartland symbolism - the retreat will deliver pictures of a bluejeans-clad president, wiping sweat from his brow as he gets back to basics.

"It certainly doesn't hurt, and it may help him," says Bruce Buchanan, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "It humanizes and regularizes a guy who right now has elitist, big-business image problems."

Democrats already are using Bush's trip as a metaphor on the economy: The president, they say, is not on the job.

"The White House may believe that showing him surrounded by bales of hay, Barney the dog and cedar trees might be a nice picture, but I think the American people have had it up to here with nice pictures from the Bush administration," says Jennifer Palmieri, a Democratic National Committee spokeswoman. "Governing by photo op isn't so great for the economy."

Another Democrat, Maryland's Gov. Parris N. Glendening, kicked off the criticism last month, suggesting to USA Today that the length of Bush's trip showed a lack of "hands-on, confident leadership."

Vacations can be tricky: Clinton was faulted for using the homes of rich friends in chichi locales. The elder President Bush was forced to defend his three-week trip in 1990, when he golfed and boated in Kennebunkport as U.S. troops mobilized for the Persian Gulf war.

As he did last year, Bush is leaving Washington for longer than almost any other president. In 2001, Bush cut short his working vacation by three days, returning here before breaking the presidential vacation record - held by Richard Nixon, who spent 31 days at his San Clemente, Calif., home in 1969.

Polls show that Americans don't usually care about their presidents' summer vacations - most are too busy taking their own. And many people believe that presidents never leave the job behind. Besides, they say, distance can be helpful.

"This is going to give him a chance to clear his mind," says Arnold Stengel, a Los Angeles accountant. "It'll be easier to contemplate the heavier issues."

Some wonder - if they were Bush, would it be hard to concentrate so far from the office?

"I guess I could probably motivate myself if I had to," says John S. Davis, a financial planner from Elmhurst, Ill. "But if I went and sat in a cabin somewhere for a month, it might be a little hard to focus."

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