Of course Obama wanted to be by water on his presidential vacation!
Even a leader of the free world deserves a break, so tomorrow U.S. President Barack Obama and his family start their summer vacation. His predecessor just loved to get away. George W. Bush spent one-sixth of his presidency at his ranch in Texas and took more days off – 1,020 – than any other occupant of the White House.
The Obamas are raising eyebrows as well, but for a different reason – because, to the surprise of many in these penny- pinching times, they are going in such style, staying at a $20-million compound on Martha’s Vineyard, island playground for the rich and famous.p Located in Chilmark, which was listed just two years ago as America’s most expensive small town, Blue Heron Farm spans 28 acres and rents for $50,000 a week. It offers such recreation options as a private beach, pool, cinema, golf practice tee and an added plus for the hoops-loving President: a basketball court.
As well, the farm has something that would have made it an even bigger draw to many of Mr. Obama’s predecessors: a private dock. Presidents, according to Herbert Hoover, have just two opportunities for personal reflection: “prayer and fishing – and they can’t pray all the time.”
THRILL OF THE CHASE
Over the years, fishing also has brought many a vacationing president north of the border, beginning with one who claimed that he did so only by accident.
Chester Arthur was elevated to the Oval Office after the assassination of James Garfield in 1881; a year earlier, he had been a founding member of the famed Restigouche Salmon Club, described in The New York Times of June 8, 1880, as “40 gentlemen who have organized themselves into an association and opened a private fishing and shooting preserve in the Acadian wilderness of New Brunswick.”
At the time, protocol required that presidents holiday at home, so rather than chase salmon in Canada, Arthur took his 1883 break in the St. Lawrence River’s beautiful Thousand Islands region. In stark contrast to the massive security that will accompany the Obamas, he arrived with a valet, a lone Secret Service agent and the only reporter who managed to tracked him down. Mr. Obama will have his BlackBerry to stay in touch, but the New York Sun’s Julian Ralph told his readers that Arthur “seems to be as far removed from news of what is going on throughout the land as he is from news centres themselves. He has no callers of note. He gets no daily newspaper and … he used the telegraph very little.”
Even so, he managed to cause a minor scandal, according to Bill Mares, author of Fishing With the Presidents. “Early in the week he had explicitly ordered the crew to avoid Canadian waters so that he would not break the precedent that sitting presidents never leave the United States.”
But this was also a man who had once pulled a record 50- pound salmon from Quebec’s Cascapedia River. So, by the end of the week, “he was perfectly content to go where the fish were, which included Queen Victoria’s dominion.”
Decades later, William Howard Taft refused to bend the rules, yet he pined for his beloved cottage at Murray Bay, now Malbaie on the north shore of the St. Lawrence east of Quebec City.
Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin writes in his book The Presidents and the Prime Ministers that mere weeks after settling into the White House, Taft wrote to his brother: “If I only have one term … one of the great consolations will be that I can go to Murray Bay in the summers thereafter.”
He got his wish and after leaving office in 1913 holidayed in Quebec often until his death in 1930.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was another great angler, although he claimed that “I don’t give a continental damn whether I catch a fish or not,” and clearly was much less of a stickler for the rules. He not only visited his summer home at Campobello, N.B., throughout his presidency, he made a secret trek in the midst of the Second World War to fish off Ontario’s Manitoulin Island just days before he would return to Canada for the first Quebec Conference with Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King.
Which may be why the vacationing FDR was, unlike Chester Arthur, anything but out of touch, according to his chief of staff. In his memoirs, Admiral William D. Leahy recalls:
“We lived for a week in a 10- car train which was parked on a siding within a few yards of the landing from which we embarked on the daily fishing trips. Roosevelt and I were the winners in the pool for the biggest catch (at) week end. The days brought fresh air, sunburn, and relaxation. The nights often were taken up with handling messages to and from our British allies regarding the Italian campaign, a proposal to make Rome an open city (which military authorities did not favour), and the general war situation. “My only complaint with the routine was that on a vacation to rest and to relax, we should have gone to bed earlier than midnight.”
Richard Nixon wasn’t much of a fisherman and as president spent most holidays in Key Biscayne at his “Florida White House.” But he did come to Canada as vice-president, landing at Picton on Lake Ontario during a 1957 boating trip with secretary of state John Foster Dulles. As he recalled in a 1972 speech in Ottawa, the experience did little for his ego. “We decided to go to one of the local pubs, just as we were. … After we had finished and were ready to leave, the waiter came up and said, ‘Sir, if you don’t mind, I have a bet with the bartender … I bet him $5 that you are Vice-President Nixon.’
“I said, ‘Well, call him over and we will confirm it.’ So the bartender came over and said, ‘I would never have believed it,’ … and as we started to move on, I heard him mumble to the waiter, ‘You know, he doesn’t look near as bad in person as he does in his pictures.’ ”
Most presidents have enjoyed better relations with Canadians – including some who have shared holiday time with our prime ministers, most notably Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney.
The late Gerald Ford once recalled that not long after inheriting the presidency from Mr. Nixon, he was on a ski vacation in Colorado when he heard that Mr. Trudeau was nearby on a visit to NORAD headquarters. An invitation was issued and before long Mr. Ford discovered that the prime minister was “a very good skier – a lot better than I was.” Thus began a friendship that lasted into their political retirement. A holiday tradition that continues to this day began in 1989, when Mr. Mulroney first travelled to the Maine summer home of George H.W. Bush, a passionate fly fisherman who has often wet a line in Canadian waters.
This year, Mr. Obama is highly unlikely to cross any borders, but that private dock on Martha’s Vineyard may well see some angling action. During a visit to Montana last weekend, he took a twohour break from his duties for a fly-fishing lesson on the storied East Gallatin River in A River Runs Through It country. The session was closed to the media, but, according to all reports, the rookie performed very well, hooking several trout, although none actually made it to shore.
Even worse, Mr. Obama discovered that presidential private time may be off limits to the media but not his critics: After his Montana outing, many of them wanted to know whether the 44th President had bothered to shell out for a fishing licence.
After all, as Herbert Hoover once said, “all men are equal before fish.”
[Arthur Milnes, a fellow of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen’s University, is the editor of In Roosevelt’s Bright Shadow (2009), a collection of presidential addresses in and about Canada, and co-editor of the forthcoming Age of the Offered Hand, essays about George H.W. Bush’s relationship with Brian Mulroney.]
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