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Obama's Vacation: Not a Problem

The right-wing media has its undergarments all knotted up because President Obama had the nerve to take a vacation. How dare he go to Martha’s Vineyard when there are troubles at home, such as in Ferguson, Missouri, and abroad, in Iraq and Gaza and Eastern Ukraine! And, if it was not bad enough to be away from the White House, he is vacationing, as he has done the last several years, at Martha’s Vineyard, summertime haunt of Harvard professors and East Coast media types. And, still worse, he golfs.

It would be easy to dismiss this as mere partisan sniping. Democrats routinely complained that George W. Bush spent too much time at his ranch in Texas. Eisenhower was the butt of jokes for his preference for golf over governance. People wondered if Hardin was ever on the job, even when he was at the White House.

Still, the present attacks on Obama point up exactly what is so obnoxious about Fox News and other tribunes of conservative punditry. They like to celebrate family values over at Fox, but then begrudge President Obama taking a vacation with his family. Any parent – and any child – can tell you that summer vacations together are some of the most important times for bonding. So, simply as a Dad, you would think they would be sympathetic. And, they should be especially sympathetic because one of the problems the nation faces is the large number of absentee Dads, especially in poorer communities, and President Obama, whatever his other faults, has repeatedly shown himself to be a doting, reliable Dad, a role model, even an exemplary role model in this regard.

The attacks on Martha’s Vineyard as some kind of snooty place display two things about Fox News that are galling. First, they seem to know nothing of history, nothing of the fact that while black families were often prevented from going to all-white beaches in the summertime, Martha’s Vineyard has a long history of welcoming black families in the summertime. Second, it is not like Jackson Hole, Dick Cheney’s summer destination, or Lake Winnipesaukee, Mitt Romney’s summer haunt, are some kind of populist retreats.

I would also note that the Church, in Her wisdom, requires clergy to take a retreat every year.  

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My Mom was a teacher, and my Dad was a principal, and so our family enjoyed long vacations every summer, although Dad had less time off than Mom. Her most important summertime rule was no shoes except when going to a public place that required them. She would work in the garden, walk to the Post Office, sit at the pool and read, cook dinner, barefoot all summer long. Our home was in the country so this was practicable in a way it is not for me living now in a suburb with sidewalks, and the occasional broken glass they seem to attract, so I have modified the rule: No long pants between June 1 and September 1, except for important meetings.

In addition to the long summers, which included chores of course, every summer we took a trip with a strong educational angle. We visited all the colonial and Revolutionary sites in New England: Plymouth, the Freedom Trail in Boston, Lexington and Concord, Newport, the Nathan Hale homestead and Old New-Gate prison. We took the cog railway to the top of Mount Washington, visited Montreal and Quebec to experience non-Anglo cultures, Philadelphia and Valley Forge, Williamsburg and Monticello. These trips instilled in me a love of history which has profoundly shaped my life. Then, as now, before visiting a place I like to read about and I insist on getting maps: If you have looked carefully at a map and have a decent sense of direction, you almost never feel lost, or at least not for long, when visiting a new place. I am glad that we did not pick a single place, like the Vineyard or Cape Cod, to go every year, but I do not begrudge those who do. I know some extended families that have stayed closer than ours because of these annual family pilgrimages to large, shared houses.

Vacations are especially important for families given all the pressures that seem to bear down on them today. I hear my friends talk about “play dates” and realize that the days are long gone when we were simply sent outside and told to go play. Now, such things require planning. Both my parents worked, and I still do not know how my mother accomplished all she did each day, and she always had time for us, but there was no spare time, few conversations without purpose. Those waited until the summer, and they were splendid. Vacations are a time to get caught up on books.  

I am at an age, 52, when I am beginning to get what are commonly called “senior moments.” You go to another room to get something or do something, get to that other room, and cannot for the life of you remember why you came there. I look at these now as little vacations: I am here, I have no idea why I am here, and consequently I have nothing to do. On the other hand, I am not such a big fan of actual vacations, in part because my dogs are getting on in years and I worry about them, but mostly because I associate vacation time with getting away from work, and I love work. Next month, I shall go to Europe for the first time in nine years, and I am looking forward to it, but I am going to give a talk, and I am bringing lots of books. The break will be nice, and just because I love my work does not mean work is the same thing as play or rest. So, for me, the idea of two weeks at the Vineyard holds no appeal. But, that does not cause me to begrudge the Obama family from their time there if it appeals to them.

As for the president’s penchant for golf, I confess I do not understand the attraction this game holds to him, or to some near and dear friends. I am with Mark Twain on this issue: Golf is a good walk spoiled.

Nonetheless, Fox & Friends should get off Obama’s back. Sean Hannity should take a vacation himself. These attacks go beyond the normal hypocrisy of cable television. There are plenty of reasons to be disappointed in President Obama, but his annual summer retreat to the Vineyard with his family is not among them. 

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