The Vacation President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 4, 2008; 1:02 PM

President Bush famously, if unjustifiably, casts himself as Ronald Reagan's disciple. But in at least one way, he has surpassed his master.

According to the meticulous records kept by CBS Radio White House correspondent Mark Knoller, Bush on Monday lodged his 879th day spent in whole or in part at Camp David or his sprawling estate in Crawford, Tex.

By comparison, the 40th president only -- only! -- spent all or part of 866 days at Camp David or his ranch in California during his eight years in office, according to the Reagan Library. (By my count, Bush actually beat Reagan's mark on Dec. 30, during his Christmas vacation in Crawford.)

This, of course, is not the noblest of records to break. Reagan was frequently derided for his laid-back, hands-off approach to his job. He even poked fun of himself at the 1987 Gridiron Dinner: "It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?"

And, of course, Bush still has almost a year to go. His will almost certainly be a record for the ages.

Bush's current tally represents a little more than a third of his presidency. And that's not counting the 39 days that Knoller says he spent in whole or in part at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Me. All in all, Knoller says, Bush has made 134 separate visits to Camp David, 70 to Crawford and 10 to Kennebunkport in a little over seven years.

Knoller didn't set out to be the chronicler of Bush's indolence. In fact, in our e-mail correspondence, he shied away from calling Bush's time away "vacation." Says Knoller: "I agree that he can never really be 'on vacation' - since the job is always with him."

Knoller explains that he started collecting presidential travel data during the early days of the Clinton presidency. "I though it would be helpful to my radio reports to say how often he visited certain key states. So I started logging those visits. Then time 'on vacation'. . . . Then pardons, vetoes, addresses to the nation, rounds of golf, commencement speeches, foreign trips, news conferences, etc, etc.

"I liked having these little information nuggets that were not readily available elsewhere."

Bush's aides go to great pains to point out that even during his frequent getaways from the office, he continues to do some, if not a lot, of work. He receives daily national security briefings, signs documents and sometimes holds teleconferences. An invitation to hang out with Bush at Camp David or Crawford is seen as a reward for friendly foreign leaders.

But at some key points in his administration, Bush has been on vacation. For instance, he spent a month in Crawford shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when critics say he should have been more attentive to warning signs.

Mike Allen wrote in The Washington Post in August of 2001, as Bush's first long Crawford vacation wrapped up: "The length of the trip revived old questions about Bush's work ethic." Of course, no one knew at the time that Bush had, during the first week of that vacation, waved off the now-famous memo specifically for the president titled " Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US." According to author Ron Suskind, Bush heard his CIA briefer out -- then told him, "All right. You've covered your ass, now."

The very next day, as Dana Milbank and Mike Allen wrote in The Post in April 2004, Bush ran into reporters while playing golf at a nearby country club and "seemed carefree as he spoke about the books he was reading, the work he was doing on his nearby ranch, his love of hot-weather jogging, his golf game and his 55th birthday."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in the New York Times in August 2006 that Bush was actually cutting short his time in Crawford that summer for symbolic purposes. "Last August . . . began with highly publicized protests by [Cindy] Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, and ended with the image of the president on vacation while New Orleans drowned, an image that helped start his slide in popularity."

Nevertheless, he was on vacation as Israel dropped bombs on Lebanon later that month.

Julie Mason noted in the Houston Chronicle this past August that Bush was fast approaching Reagan's record. She wrote: "The 1,600-acre ranch has proved a durable haven for Bush, who often disappears into its varied landscapes for days or weeks at a time without public appearances. He has an attractive stone house, shaded swimming pool, miles of rugged bike trails and law enforcement at every entry point keeping people out."

In my May 8, 2006, column, " Would Bush Rather Be Fishing?", I wondered if Bush doesn't really enjoy his day job. A few days earlier, when asked by a German tabloid to name the most wonderful moment of his presidency, Bush said it came while he was on vacation, fishing on his private lake.

Middle East Watch

A little over three months ago, Bush was speaking optimistically about bringing peace to the Middle East before leaving office. Instead, things have gone from bad to worse.

Glenn Kessler wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads back to the Middle East this week, three months after Bush hosted a peace conference bringing together Israelis and Arabs in Annapolis, prospects for peace have shifted dramatically. There has been little clear movement in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, while the Iranian-backed militant group Hamas has shown increasingly that it can set the region's agenda. . . .

"Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said that key players in the region are moving beyond the Bush administration. . . . 'Everyone is sucking up to the Iranians,' he added.

"The signs of American irrelevance are apparent throughout the region. . . .

"Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Abbas and now advocacy director for the American Task Force on Palestine, faulted the Bush administration for not nurturing a process that it started. . . .

"'There is no push from the Americans,' he said. 'We are still waiting to see what they will do. It is surprising how little has happened. If you guys are going to run out of steam, why create all these expectations?'

"'It is a big question mark,' said Martin Indyk, director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. 'The impression one gets is that this administration is out of juice.'"

Griff Witte wrote in yesterday's Washington Post: "Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday suspended peace talks with Israel following a spasm of violence in the Gaza Strip that has left more than 100 Palestinians dead since Wednesday as Hamas has continued its campaign of rocket strikes."

Helene Cooper wrote in yesterday's New York Times: "Ever since the militant Islamist organization Hamas took over Gaza eight months ago, President Bush's peace plan for the Middle East has been to prop up the more moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, in the hopes that Palestinians would rally behind him as man who could bring them statehood and make Hamas irrelevant.

"But Israel's military and economic pressure on Gaza, the menacing rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and the ensuing chaos that reached new heights this weekend have highlighted a fundamental tangle in that plan: As long as Hamas controls Gaza, it can subvert negotiations between Israelis and moderate Palestinians whenever it sees fit."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "The White House on Monday blamed the Palestinian militant group Hamas for causing the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians that has killed dozens and put a halt to peace talks."

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed hard Tuesday to resume Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, despite the chaos and violence of a week that saw both Palestinian and Israeli civilians killed.

"Walking away from talks plays into the hands of militants, the U.S. envoy said. She blamed Palestinian Hamas radicals for provoking an Israeli military onslaught in the Gaza Strip. The campaign has derailed an already troubled U.S-backed drive for peace terms this year."

And who made Hamas what it is today? In a highly controversial -- but amply sourced -- new article in Vanity Fair, David Rose writes that "[A]fter failing to anticipate Hamas's victory over Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election, the White House cooked up yet another scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle: part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs. . . . President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever."

Writes Rose: "Some sources call the scheme 'Iran-contra 2.0,' recalling that Abrams was convicted (and later pardoned) for withholding information from Congress during the original Iran-contra scandal under President Reagan. There are echoes of other past misadventures as well: the C.I.A.'s 1953 ouster of an elected prime minister in Iran, which set the stage for the 1979 Islamic revolution there; the aborted 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which gave Fidel Castro an excuse to solidify his hold on Cuba; and the contemporary tragedy in Iraq.

"Within the Bush administration, the Palestinian policy set off a furious debate. One of its critics is David Wurmser, the avowed neoconservative, who resigned as Vice President Dick Cheney's chief Middle East adviser in July 2007, a month after the Gaza coup.

"Wurmser. . . . believes that Hamas had no intention of taking Gaza until Fatah forced its hand.'"

Opinion Watch

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board writes: "It's hard to know which is the bigger smoking ruin: the battleground Palestinian turf of Gaza or White House peace-making in the Middle East."

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "The upsurge in fighting between Israel and Hamas over the weekend, and the resulting suspension of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, demonstrates again a crucial flaw in the Bush administration's Middle East strategy. President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have assumed that Hamas could be bottled up and ignored in the Gaza Strip while a deal for a Palestinian state was worked out. In fact, since the Annapolis conference three months ago, Hamas has repeatedly proved that it can disrupt the process and command the world's attention by firing rockets at Israeli cities and drawing the inevitable military response. . . .

"Arab governments and a growing number of Israelis, meanwhile, argue that a truce with Hamas is the only way forward. Hamas has repeatedly hinted that it is open to one; Egypt has been trying to play broker, and Mr. Abbas suggested yesterday that he might be willing to serve as an intermediary between Hamas and Israel. Predictably, the Bush administration and the Israeli military establishment oppose any such deal, both for ideological reasons and because it could allow Hamas to rest and rearm. But if there is no truce, the war in Gaza will continue -- and the peace process will not move forward."

Iran Watch

Robin Wright and Colum Lynch write in The Washington Post: "The United Nations imposed new sanctions on Iran yesterday, capping a year of difficult diplomacy that may represent the Bush administration's final bid to mobilize international action against Tehran over its controversial nuclear program.

"Just five months after President Bush warned that Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons could lead to 'World War III,' the White House had to settle for a watered-down U.N. resolution that makes most trade and financial sanctions voluntary. The Security Council voted 14 to 0 to sanction Iran for refusing to stop its uranium-enrichment program, falling one short of the unanimous vote the White House sought to signal the international community's resolve."

Andrew Sullivan blogs for the Atlantic that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "visit with the Shiite government of Iraq is a useful reminder of what the permanent Iraq occupation means: an expansion of the power of Iran in the region, even as its nuclear bomb aspirations continue, and the slow emasculation of the US."

Charles Kupchan and Ray Takeyh write in a Los Angeles Times opinion column: "After three decades of isolating Iran, it is time to acknowledge that economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure and military threats have failed to bring Tehran to heel. To be sure, Iran's nuclear program, its support of extremist groups standing in the way of the peace process and its arming of Shiite militias in Iraq pose serious threats to the U.S. and its allies.

"However, containment has not worked, and the debacle in Iraq has made clear the dangers of regime change by force. The best means of addressing the Iranian threat are through patient diplomacy and regional integration along the lines envisioned by America's Arab allies."

Iraq Watch

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush pledged Monday that security gains will continue in Iraq but offered no new details about how that promise will affect the timing of additional U.S. troop withdrawals.

"In thanking Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who until recently served as the No. 2 commander in Iraq, Bush said, 'The gains that you and your teams have made will continue on, because stakes in Iraq are essential for peace, essential for freedom, and essential for the security of this country."

Here's the transcript of Bush's remarks, in which he contributed a memorable Bushism: "And so, General, I want to thank you for your service," Bush said. "And I appreciate the fact that you really snatched defeat out of the jaws of those who are trying to defeat us in Iraq."

The Cost

Daniel Trotta writes for Reuters: "The Iraq war has contributed to the U.S. economic slowdown and is impeding an economic recovery, Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says.

"Meanwhile, the U.S. government is severely underestimating the cost of the war, Stiglitz and co-author Linda Bilmes write in their book, 'The Three Trillion Dollar War' . . .

"Stiglitz and Bilmes argue the true costs are at least $3 trillion under what they call an ultraconservative estimate, and could surpass the cost of World War Two, which they put at $5 trillion after adjusting for inflation. . . .

"Asked if the war has contributed to the U.S. slowdown, Stiglitz said, 'Very much so.'

"'To offset that depressing effect, the Fed has flooded the economy with liquidity and the regulators looked the other way when very imprudent lending was going up,' Stiglitz said. 'We were living on borrowed money and borrowed time and eventually a day of reckoning had to come, and it has now come.'

"The war has also altered how the United States has reacted to its current economic troubles, he said.

"'When America's financial institutions had a problem, they had to turn to the sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East for recapitalization, for the bailout,' he said.

"'The reason was obvious. The war had led to high oil prices. The war had meant that America had to borrow more money. There weren't sources of liquid funds in the United States. The sources of the liquid funds were in the Middle East,' he said."

Bob Herbert writes in his New York Times opinion column: "On Thursday, the Joint Economic Committee, chaired by Senator Chuck Schumer, conducted a public examination of the costs of the war. The witnesses included the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz (who believes the overall costs of the war -- not just the cost to taxpayers -- will reach $3 trillion), and Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. . . .

"Mr. Stiglitz and Mr. Hormats both addressed the foolhardiness of waging war at the same time that the government is cutting taxes and sharply increasing non-war-related expenditures.

"Mr. Hormats told the committee:

"'Normally, when America goes to war, nonessential spending programs are reduced to make room in the budget for the higher costs of the war. Individual programs that benefit specific constituencies are sacrificed for the common good. . . . And taxes have never been cut during a major American war. For example, President Eisenhower adamantly resisted pressure from Senate Republicans for a tax cut during the Korean War.'

"Said Mr. Stiglitz: 'Because the administration actually cut taxes as we went to war, when we were already running huge deficits, this war has, effectively, been entirely financed by deficits.'"

FISA Watch

Ellen Nakashima and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "House and Senate Democratic leaders are headed into talks today that they say could lead to a breakthrough on legislation to revamp domestic surveillance powers and grant phone companies some form of immunity for their role in the administration's warrantless wiretapping program after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. . . .

"A group of several dozen moderate to conservative House Democrats, known as 'Blue Dogs,' has pushed [House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.)] and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to approve the Senate bill. Some aides on Capitol Hill were discussing the potential for the House passing the Senate version but breaking it into two votes: one on the portion of the bill that deals with revising FISA provisions and a second on the immunity measure.

"This procedural move would allow many Democrats to vote against immunity but still make its approval all but certain, since almost every Republican and some centrist Democrats would vote in favor."

Bush yesterday used the nation's state attorneys general as support for his immunity argument.

"Now there's a serious debate here, and some of the Attorney Generals have written a letter, both Democrats and Republicans, urging that the debate be solved in such a way that the professionals can do the job," Bush said.

Only 21 of them, however, signed the letter, which Bush said states "that assistance from private companies, as they put it, 'is utterly essential, and urges the Senate,' -- at the time -- 'to approve FISA reform that protects the companies from lawsuits.' I think that represents what most people -- how most people think here in the country."

Goeglein Watch

The Fort Wayne (Ind.) News-Sentinel has the latest on the saga of disgraced former White House aide Tim Goeglein, who was found last week to have plagiarized many of the columns he wrote for that paper: "Contacted Sunday, the Fort Wayne native attributed the plagiarism to shortcomings in his character: 'Pride. Vanity. It's all my fault. It's inexcusable. What I did is wrong. I categorically apologize.'"

The paper had already found plagiarism in 20 of 38 columns dating to 2000. Now: "An examination of 39 more guest columns from Goeglein published during the 1990s turned up seven that pulled material from earlier-published sources without attribution. . . .

"Evidence of plagiarism appears as early as 1995."

Nancy Nall Derringer, the blogger who first uncovered Goeglein's plagiarism, writes in Slate: "Saying the news cycle moves at an ever-increasing pace doesn't even qualify as a cliche anymore. But this felt like a new record. Reporting in one minute, writing in one hour, a whole career undone in one day. Reading the comments piling up on the original post was a surreal experience, as one reader after another checked in with evidence, with links. It was journalism as hive mind."

Nominations Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate yesterday approved a federal judge from Chicago as second-in-command at the Justice Department, part of a fledgling agreement between Democrats and the White House to move toward confirmation of various executive appointments they each have put forward.

"Mark R. Filip, 41, will take over as deputy attorney general to formally replace Paul J. McNulty, who resigned seven months ago after the Justice Department's firings of nine U.S. attorneys.

"The appointment comes after months of partisan wrangling over presidential nominations and followed a discussion earlier yesterday between Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, according to legislative aides and administration officials.

"Reid spokesman Jim Manley said that Bolten 'pledged to improve the stalled nomination process' and that the Senate's voice vote in favor of Filip was 'in return and a sign of good faith.'"

Contempt Watch

Jonathan Turley writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column that there is "something profound, even beautiful" in the "recent decisions of Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey to block any prosecution of Bush administration officials for contempt and to block any criminal investigation

"In his twisting of legal principles, the attorney general has succeeded in creating a perfect paradox. Under Mukasey's Paradox, lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president -- and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers."

Cheney's New Digs

Ken Layne blogs for Wonkette: "Dick and Lynne are building their nightmare dream home on a quiet, expensive McLean road that's literally about 2,000 feet away from the Central Intelligence Agency HQ in the Langley woods." Cryptome.org has all the details and pictures.

Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on life in the bubble; Nate Beeler on Bush's disconnect; Steve Sack on Bush's rosy view of the economy; and Jim Borgman on the red phone ringing.

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