WASHINGTON – President Bush seems to bolt from the White House every chance he gets. He begins a monthlong vacation on his Texas ranch Saturday, and by the time he returns he will have spent nearly two months of his presidency there.
And that doesn't include the many weekends he's spent at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains.
The White House calls the Texas trip a working vacation and notes that he'll have staff with him to help him attend to presidential chores. He also plans trips outside Texas a few days each week, using the 1,m the office.
"I think it is so important for a president to spend some time away from Washington, in the heartland of America," he said the other day, discussing his love for the ranch he and Laura Bush bought two years ago with proceeds from the sale of his share in the Texas Rangers baseball team.
"Whenever I go home to the heartland, I am reminded of the values that build strong families, strong communities and strong character, the values that make our people unique."
Bush prefers wide-open spaces where he can run, hike and walk his dogs to the confining White House environs. He also says he likes to get in touch with "real" people outside the Beltway.
He has spent 14 weekends at Camp David, bringing paperwork and an aide or two along. He played host to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain there. Bush also logged a long weekend last month at the family's Kennebunkport, Maine, compound, throwing horseshoes, playing golf, fishing.
Sensitive to suggestions that the president might be loafing, the White House has dubbed the remainder of August as Bush's "Home to the Heartland Tour."
"It's going to be a working vacation in the classic definition of the word," presidential press secretary Ari Fleischer said Friday.
Presidents have a lot more flexibility on taking vacations than the average salaried employee. And Bush has a lot of help in making travel arrangements.
He has a fleet of helicopters and a jumbo jet at his disposal.
But he also faces unique pressures in his job. Most Americans don't live inside a gated compound with snipers on the roof and tourists peering in.
Bush says he plans to "work and take a little time off" in Texas.
Using the ranch as a base, he will promote White House initiatives in Rocky Mountain National Park, Denver, Albuquerque, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and San Antonio.
Aides also expect him to make a decision on the divisive question of whether to allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, and announce it before Congress returns.
Ken Khachigian, who wrote speeches for Presidents Reagan and Nixon, said getaways provide invaluable downtime for presidents.
"They just want to get away from Northwest Washington and have a little privacy and relax," said Khachigian, who spent time with both Republican presidents during their California vacations. "They want to feel like they don't have to wake up in the morning and go to some boring meeting with a budget guy, or have to listen to a Cabinet officer talk about something."
Nixon established a "Western White House" in San Clemente, Calif., designating a Cabinet Room and offices for top staff in temporary buildings.
Reagan was more determined to unwind, tolerating Khachigian and the speechwriting chores he brought to the Santa Barbara ranch. But Reagan personally -- and eagerly -- drove Khachigian back to his car when the work was done, the speechwriter said.
In all, Reagan spent all or part of 335 days of his eight-year presidency on his ranch.
The first president Bush spent 153 days in Kennebunkport vacationing, and 390 at Camp David.
President Clinton went to Camp David an average of about once a month, and generally took two weeks off in the summer; a week at Christmastime; and a week in late winter. Favorite destinations were Martha's Vineyard, Jackson Hole and the Virgin Islands.
While Bush is gone, aides will mind the shop at the White House. Vice President Dick Cheney, won't be among them. He will be at his own vacation home in Jackson Hole, Wyo., until Labor Day, though in contact with Bush whenever needed, a spokeswoman said.