This city's latest mini-flap has been sparked by President George W Bush's late summer schedule. Should the president of these United States be away on vacation for all of August? What demons drove Mr. Bush to pick the hellish heat and barren flatness of central Texas over the rocky coast of Maine, with its high tides and low temperatures?
It reminds us of two overlooked facts about Washington, D C: The nation's capital has more than its unfair share of joyless Puritans, and Ronald Reagan was probably the last president who really knew how to be president.
First, the city's unique brand of Puritanism. Washington, which is my adopted and beloved hometown, is different from most places. Here, we do not make automobiles or movies or microchips. Our production is not easily measured in tangible units. Sometimes, when we are unable to measure our specific production, or Output, we instead measure our Input the time we are in the office or at the desk. In short, if I cannot tell you exactly what I did, I can at least tell you how long I didn't do it.
Nearly every public and private organization, and every political campaign, has a minimum of one designated martyr. The martyr is a joyless soul whose mission is to be the first person in every morning and the last person to leave every night and to make sure that everybody in or out of the organization is personally aware of the martyr's heroic self-sacrifice.
All White Houses are overstocked with martyrs. Presidential staffers love to confide how The Boss takes work and worry home, how much longer and harder he works than the press or the public gives him credit for. But Ronald Reagan never once pretended to be a martyr. He enjoyed himself too much. He was not photographed alone and late at night in agonizing isolation. If somebody is truly serious about his work and that work is truly serious, the illogic goes, he must wear a pained facial expression. Does the name Jimmy Carter come to mind?
Reagan smiled too much, and when the national scolds criticized him for his leisurely banker's hours, the Gipper routed his critics with the line, "They tell me that hard work never killed anybody, but I figured, 'Why take the chance?"'
The presidential vacation is mostly a lot more presidential than it is vacation. The president is expected to be seen in the company of serious advisers, all of whom seem to wear blue suits, furrowed brows and earnest expressions. The president is supposed to take a "working vacation," which of course is an oxymoron, a contradiction like cheerleading scholarship, coal mine safety or airline food.
Presidents aren't supposed to laze around in hammocks. President George H.W. Bush used to "relax" by playing 18 holes of golf in an hour. President Bill Clinton kept a killer schedule: 36 holes of golf, a full evening schedule of dinners and long walks, while reading cover-to-cover, we were told, three serious books and as many mysteries, just before heading for a round of fund-raisers and giving the go-ahead to bomb a Third World city.
Reagan actually took vacations. He spent 345 days of his presidency on his ranch in the mountains outside Santa Barbara. He did not feel compelled to stage meetings there or to be photographed lugging eyes-only briefing books. Still, even Reagan's severest critics in whose ranks I regularly counted myself had to admit that he was the steady skipper who almost always sailed by a fixed star.
In the words of conservative thinker Marshall Wittman of the Hudson Institute, the strategy of the Bush camp is to cast George W. as "Reagan on the Brazos," in Levis and work shirt on the ranch. But, says Wittman, Bush staffers have a "certain defensiveness" about them and their principal that forces them to fill up August with "presidential" trips outside of Texas.
Why Crawford on the outskirts of Waco, where Wittman grew up and which he affectionately describes as "one tall building surrounded by 100,000 Baptists"? Remember that George W. Bush lost just one election in his life a l978 House race in Midland, which is centrally remote from everywhere, when his Democratic opponent Kent Hance accused him of being a carpetbagger, a product of the liberal Eastern establishment and having friends who played polo.
Bush explained then that he was a "semi-good ole boy," and he has spent the last quarter century proving it. It might even be that in addition to tormenting with the heat and dust the press for whom cool breezes and a cold beer are remote memories, he may just like it there.
Correction: Due to an error on my part in last week's column, I inadvertently left out a phrase, which left the reader with the erroneous impression that the National Education Assn. (NEA) raises and spends "soft money" in political campaigns. The NEA neither raises nor uses "soft money."
Mark Shields is a columnist for Creators Syndicate.