Reporter's notebook: When presidents go on "vacation," controversy follows

WEST TISBURY, MA - AUGUST 18: U.S. President Barack Obama arriving at Martha's Vineyard Airport on August 18, 2011 in West Tisbury, MA. Obama will be on vacation for nine-day's at Martha Vineyardâ Rick Friedman-Pool/Getty Images

President Obama arrives at Martha's Vineyard.
President Obama arrives at Martha's Vineyard Airport on August 18, 2011 in West Tisbury, Mass.
Getty Images
Of all the numbers in my files on presidential activities, none generates more controversy than "vacations."

It's also the data I'm asked for more than any other aspect of the presidency. Not pardons, foreign trips, number of speeches, news conferences or visits to Michigan. It's "vacations."

Especially at this time of year, fellow reporters and others want to know: How much "vacation" has the president taken since taking office? How does it compare with his predecessors? Do you count his Camp David visits?

As of today, here are the answers to those questions.

  • Since taking office, President Obama has taken 10 "vacation" trips of lengths from 2 days to 12.
  • They total all or part of 61 days.
  • His "vacation" starting today is #11.
  • These numbers are separate from his 20 visits to Camp David spanning all or part of 48 days.

I deliberately put quotation marks on the word "vacation" as recognition that a modern U.S. president is never really on "vacation," not the way most people understand the word.

At left, a view of where President Obama and his family are staying in Martha's Vineyard, called Blue Heron Farm.

There's no denying that the burdens and responsibilities of the office go with him wherever he is - even on "vacation."

But presidents draw plenty of criticism for the privilege. President Ronald Reagan was often castigated by his critics for all the time he spent at his California ranch. He made 43 visits to his ranch as president, totaling all or part of 349 days - 2 weeks and 2 days short of a year.

President George W. Bush was constantly slammed for the time he spent at his Texas ranch. By my count, he made 77 visits to his 1600 acres in Crawford, totaling 490 days: well over a year.

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In a book, author Vincent Bugliosi used my "vacation" numbers to support his contention that President Bush "could not care less about the human suffering and carnage going on in Iraq, or anywhere."

It's an unfair claim, since presidential "vacations" have more to do with a change of venue than a getaway from the duties of office. Presidents can do things on "vacation" they can't do at the White House, but they remain on-duty 24/7.

There have been plenty of occasions when urgent business has intruded on presidents on "vacation."

  • July 14, 1993: President Clinton cuts short a mini-"vacation" in Hawaii to inspect flood damage in the Midwest.
  • September 1, 1983: President Reagan cuts short a ranch "vacation" following the Soviet shootdown of Korean Airlines Flight 007.
  • August 20, 1998: President Clinton interrupts his Martha's Vineyard "vacation to order missile strikes on suspected terror bases in Afghanistan and Sudan. He returned to the White House for the night, then back to the Vineyard the following day.
  • August 29, 2005: President George W. Bush drew enormous heat when he didn't immediately cut short a ranch vacation and return to Washington in the wake of the devastating strike of Hurricane Katrina. Not immediately realizing the extent of the damage wrought by the storm, Mr. Bush went ahead with a previously scheduled trip to Arizona and California on behalf of his Medicare Prescription Drug Program. He returned to his ranch on August 30 and then to the White House the next day.

Even during World War II, President Roosevelt took "vacations."

Information obtained from his presidential library shows FDR went on a 7 day fishing trip to Birch Island in Ontario, Canada, in August of 1943. And since it was during the war, the entire trip was wrapped in secrecy.

Hard to imagine an American president taking a secret "vacation," much less leaving the country to do it. Imagine the political uproar if he did.

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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.

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