Hawaii Four-Four

Digging deep on the president’s Christmas vacation

Pity the poor political writer who must spend his or her pre-holiday hours eking out a report on the President’s yearly Christmas vacation. (Pity more the writer who must report on those reports.) There is no story here. None. “Man goes to Hawaii” is more sitcom episode than headline. And yet, try they will—those hungry-for-whatever outlets that simply must find an angle worth covering on the president’s every move.

Some do it better than others. The National Review’s George E. Condon Jr. does a pretty stellar job today with the evergreen historical look at presidential holidays past, fitting Obama’s post-victory dash to Hawaii into the pattern of those who have come before him. Sure, ten other writers do the same thing every year, but at least Condon has some nice color, like this:

For Calvin Coolidge, it was up to friends to make sure he had something to brag about after his fishing trip. In 1928, Coolidge came up empty on a trip to the Fire Hole in Yellowstone National Park. Worried about how this failure would look, park rangers and a guide took someone else’s fish and moved them into the president’s creel. When reporters asked Coolidge how he had done, he responded “I have always heard that they judge a fisherman’s success by the contents of his creel,” and held aloft the overflowing basket, never mentioning that he had not caught any of the fish.

Less successful but doubly amusing is Carol E. Lee’s “For Obama vacation, comfort is key” at Politico, a kind of diagnosis of the president’s vacation preferences. It’s brilliant, for all the wrong reasons. Lee tells us:

A simple profile of Obama’s time off has emerged halfway through his term: he prefers warm climates and islands-Hawaii in the winter and Martha’s Vineyard in the summer-and as the 49-year-old father of two young daughters, he budgets plenty of family time. And despite being a decidedly urban president with deep roots in bustling Chicago, he would rather take his leisure time away from the hustle of the city.

It sounds a little like an intro to an episode of The Bachelor. Not that I’d know.

You might think Politico would stop there, with a semi reasonable but brief summation of the president’s traveller’s peccadilloes. A-ha! You don’t know them. Instead, Lee produces a three-page examination of the president’s holiday psyche, complete with a handful of pithy insights from some “experts.” Like these pearls, from Doctors “Oh really?” and “You don’t say?”

“President Obama uses vacations for what they are designed: relaxation and family time,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential historian who teaches at Towson (Md.) University.


“Presidents are often creatures of habit as far as vacations are concerned,” explained Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.

You can feel the gears really grinding when Lee, with the help of Clinton White House veteran Chris Lehane, attempts to find something deeper in the president’s holiday preferences.

“Vacations, like the clothes one wears, books someone reads, sports they play, friends they hang out with, are a window into a person’s character and personality,” said Lehane, who served in Clinton’s Office of Legal Counsel and was one of the president’s political operative. “Politicians in particular and presidents especially often communicate their character and personalities by the personal choices they make since they are a reference point or market for the public to extrapolate from.”

Still, there’s a drinking game in this piece, perhaps something you could play after, or during, Christmas lunch (finally, a use for the presidential holiday story!). It’s an odd one I’ll admit, but try it out: every time Lee mentions the treat “shave ice,” take a swig of heavily spiked eggnog. Here are the moments you should look for. You may need a well-grounded stool.

Number one:

For Barack Obama, the signature image of his presidential vacationing, so far, is him eating shave ice, the Hawaiian version of a snow cone.

Number two:

The same friends who have accompanied Obama on every extended vacation he’s had since taking office will meet him again in Hawaii, where he spent most of his childhood, and he has the same activities on tap-golf, beachfront lounging and a shave ice outing, revealing a president who hasn’t been all that imaginative when it comes to taking time off.

Whew, number three:

“We’ll definitely be getting some shave ice,” Obama said as he detailed his vacation plans in an interview with a Hawaii radio station. “And I’ll probably hit a couple of golf courses.”

Five (hiccup):

“We really just spend time with family, and we have a lot of fun traditions,” first lady Michelle Obama told kids at the Children’s National Medical Center earlier this month. “Even though the kids are getting older, they still like to do the same things over and over again-going to the zoo, going to get shaved ice, swimming in the ocean.”

Six. Worked up a Christmas sweat yet?

Indeed, the staff at Island Snow Shave Ice in Kailua, the town where the Obamas have vacationed for the past three years, prepared this week for a presidential visit after a team of Secret Service agents stopped by to survey the shop. Last year, when Obama stopped by Island Snow-and placed the same order he did the year before-he even hinted at his own predictability.

Umm, err, what were we up to?

“I’m a traditionalist,” Obama said, after he refused the customary shave ice toppings: red Japanese Azuki beans and vanilla sweetened condensed milk.

Merry Christmas, Mr. President.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , ,