I’ve taken a vacation on the “Redneck Riviera,” the nickname for that stretch of Gulf Coast from Texas to the Florida Panhandle. I know for a fact that President Obama didn’t take a brief family trip there earlier this month simply because it was a great place to holiday.
I spent a week at a beachfront hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1986. More precisely, I spent a week hunched over the toilet in my hotel room after acquiring the worst case of food poisoning I’ve ever had. I can’t blame an oil spill or a hurricane or any other of the regularly scheduled calamities that occur in that part of the country. I think it’s just a cursed region, and I was lucky to get away with most of my colon intact.
I understand, though, why the president felt compelled to stop there before heading off for his real vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. It was a sincere if symbolic gesture to show the country that the region was once again a safe place to visit. During their 27-hour visit to Panama City, the First Family went for a boat ride, looked at a porpoise (“Look,” said daughter Sasha, “A porpoise!”), took a dip in the salad dressing known as the Gulf of Mexico, and played a round of miniature golf.
Obama wasn’t the first president to use the power of his office to bring publicity to a stricken area of the country. There are numerous other occasions throughout U.S. history that a sitting chief executive took a vacation meant more to send a message to the American people than to actually have a relaxing good time.
In fact, did you know? …
In 1814, President James Madison rushed back inside the burning White House, set ablaze by the British during the War of 1812, to rescue his wife Dolly and her irreplaceable collection of cream-filled snack cakes. President Madison would later comment to the press that tourists coming to Washington should “fear not to visit what’s left of the Executive Mansion” because the fire had burned itself out within a few days when the building was completely consumed.
In 1841, President William Henry Harrison, who holds the record for shortest-serving president by dying only 31 days after his inauguration, had to have an equally brief vacation. He spent 36 minutes grilling a hamburger in the backyard on April 2 of that year, and urged Americans to heed the slogan “the redder the better” for any meat they might enjoy over the upcoming Easter holiday. He died two days later of pleurisy, pneumonia, jaundice and what medical historians call “overwhelming septicemia” remarkably unrelated to the ingestion of nearly raw beef.
In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln had the weight of the world on his gaunt shoulders. The Union had dissolved three years earlier, and the Confederacy still threatened to invade the North. Lincoln’s wife Mary, known for not exactly being all there, suggested he spend a weekend golfing at the Gettysburg battlefield he had consecrated in his famous Gettysburg Address only a year before. Rather than argue with the First Harpie, Lincoln played 36 holes on Saturday and another 18 on Sunday, shooting a respectable cumulative score of 217, or one over par, before returning to Washington. “It was a little hard to tell the sandtraps from the freshly dug graves,” Lincoln complained to his caddie, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. “Still, I would recommend a stop to anyone passing through southeastern Pennsylvania. Amish country is nice too. Be sure to have a whoopie pie.”
In 1887, President Grover Cleveland made the first of two vacation stops to Cleveland, Ohio. Though the then-thriving city on the shores of Lake Erie was not named after him, he thought it’d be cool to visit a place that had the same name he did. The prescient president may have sensed that within a century the city would become a festering shithole when he told reporters covering his holiday that visitors would “never want to leave the land of Cleve.” He returned to the so-called “Metropolis of the Western Reserve” (not exactly the “Big Apple” or “Frisco” but actually a pretty catchy nickname by 19th-century standards) when he became the only man to serve two non-consecutive terms as president in 1895, as part of his effort to exactly repeat everything he had done in his first term four years earlier.
In 1901, President William McKinley took time out from waging the Spanish-American War to be shot by a disgruntled anarchist (the worst kind). He convalesced near the site of his shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., for nearly eight days, publicizing the value of bed rest in what historians later labeled the “first staycation”. Glum over the prospects of returning to work after such a refreshing interlude, he instead died on Sept. 14.
In 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover got a bad case of depression himself, spending almost a week hiding under a blanket. He emerged to tell the nation “depression — it’s not so bad,” and encouraged the mostly unemployed citizenry to think of their long, unproductive days as a “leisurely retreat from the cares of the world.”
In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt was witness to a precipitous fall-off in vacation travel to America’s allies in Europe. World War II and the occupation of virtually the entire continent by Nazis and Fascists meant fewer U.S. tourists contributing precious dollars to the local economies. To publicize the assertion that the war-torn region was still a great place to visit, Roosevelt made a surprise visit to the British seaside village of Dover from where he began his now-famous swim of the English Channel. Despite having almost no use of his legs due to a childhood bout with polio, Roosevelt traversed the frigid waters in what was then a record six days and 13 hours. Within three years of what critics had labeled a publicity stunt, millions of Americans visited the birthplace of Western Civilization, many of them returning alive.
In 1966, fighting an unpopular war overseas and dealing with racial unrest at home, President Lyndon Johnson signed up with the folks at “Vocation Vacations” for a week at Motown Studios in Detroit. There, he sat in on recording sessions for what would become the Supremes’ 1966 hit “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Though mostly relegated to the role of back-up singer and tambourinist, he received a co-lyricist credit on the album version of the song for contributing the lines “I need love, love, to ease my mind” and “Now I can’t bear to live my life alone, I’ve grown impatient for a love to call my own.”