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Trump's 'Working Vacation' Marks Decline Of Presidential Getaway


President Trump is away at his golf club in New Jersey for a 17-day vacation. He calls it a working vacation. Our next guest says there's really no such thing as a real vacation for presidents anymore. So we're going to talk about the evolution of the presidential getaway.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The presidential yacht Williamsburg stands by in the Potomac to take aboard the chief executive for his first extended vacation since taking over the job 16 months ago.

CORNISH: Our presidential vacation tour guide is journalist Matthew Algeo. He's written three books about presidents, including "Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure." Matthew, welcome to the program.

MATTHEW ALGEO: It's good to be with you.

CORNISH: Now, you say that when President Trump says he's on a working vacation, we should believe it. How come?

ALGEO: As you mentioned in the intro, presidents really can't get away from the job anymore. It wasn't always like that. Back in the 19th century, Congress would recess for the summer. And it wasn't unusual for the president to just disappear from Washington altogether for three or four weeks.

CORNISH: Three or four weeks - is that a long time, or is there anyone who kind of set the record for that?

ALGEO: Well, William Taft believed that everyone should take two or three months of vacation every year to recharge their batteries. And he took some very long vacations himself. He loved to golf, much like President Trump. And so Taft would vacation in Beverly, Mass., very close to a golf club there. And that was pretty normal really until after the second world war. And then you see presidents really dialing back the vacations.

CORNISH: Can you pinpoint a moment when the tide turned, when public sentiment or at least media criticism focused on how many days the president tried to get away?

ALGEO: I guess we really begin to see it with Harry Truman. He liked to vacation at a naval station on Key West. And he really liked to let loose. He would wear really loud Hawaiian shirts. He would go swimming. And photographs were published of him in his swimsuit, and it was regarded as unpresidential, this appearance. Harry was unapologetic. But it really was the first time that presidential vacations came under scrutiny not just for the time spent away from the White House but also for the expense. People began to realize that Truman had to take 15 Secret Service officers with him when he went on vacation.

CORNISH: In the end, how do you feel about this as a criticism? I mean it's one thing for me to say, gee, I can't get away from the office - right? - (laughter) and have my smartphone and be worried about that. But this is the leader of the free world. It's a different standard, is it not?

ALGEO: Yes, it is. I guess what I go back to is that what's really changed is the nature of the presidency. And I go back to Grover Cleveland. He's one of my favorites. You know, Grover really saw his job as president as making sure Congress didn't pass bad laws. So when Congress was not in session, Grover really felt like he could get away. And now the presidency is a 24-hour-a-day job, seven days a week. There is no getting away from the presidency anymore. A hundred, 150 years ago, there really was getting away from the presidency. When you look at the very early presidents - Madison, Monroe - they would be out of Washington six or seven months a year. That's simply impossible now.

CORNISH: Journalist Matthew Algeo, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ALGEO: You're welcome.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You can see the president is really enjoying that vacation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.