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Wikimedia Commons

A Brief History of Presidential Vacations

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

We're in the throes of summer vacation season, but at least one American is still on the job. While it's rumored that President Obama will follow in the footsteps of President Clinton and vacation on Martha's Vineyard, he hasn't had a chance to break out his Bermuda shorts just yet. When Obama does take off, though, he'll join in the grand tradition of presidential vacations, like these notable ones:

1. Abe Lincoln Doesn't Go Too Far

Far-flung vacations are nice, but President Lincoln preferred to stay a bit closer to home. When Lincoln needed a getaway from the heat and political turmoil of Civil War-era Washington, D.C., he headed to a different part of Washington, D.C. From 1862 to 1864 Lincoln spent June through November living in a cottage atop a hill at the Soldiers' Home a few miles from the White House. Lincoln apparently loved the slight change of scenery, which meant slightly cooler temperatures and a chance to ride his horse each morning. If you're considering a stay-cation this year, consider this Honest Abe's endorsement.

2. FDR Heats Up Georgia

Some presidents choose to head to their hometowns or a beachside resort for their vacations, but Franklin Roosevelt preferred to travel to western Georgia. Warm Springs, Georgia, is the home of (you guessed it!) warm springs that supposedly had therapeutic value for polio sufferers. FDR, who had contracted his own paralytic illness in 1921, started visiting Warm Springs in 1924 in the hope that exercising in the springs' warm waters would cure him.

Although the springs didn't reverse his illness, FDR felt like his time at the resort alleviated his symptoms somewhat. In 1927 he bought the resort he'd been staying at, and in 1932 he ordered a six-room Georgia pine house to be built on the property. This house was FDR's retreat throughout his presidency and became known as the Little White House.

FDR was sitting for a portrait at the Little White House when he died of a stroke in April 1945. Today, the house is part of Georgia's state park system and is open to visitors; it's been preserved to look almost exactly as it did the day FDR died.

3. Movie Cowboy Does Real Ranching

Think George W. Bush was the first president to sneak away from the White House to spend time on his ranch? Not quite. At the end of his second term as Governor of California in 1974, Ronald Reagan paid just over half a million dollars to acquire Rancho del Cielo in California's Santa Ynez Mountains.

The 688-acre ranch, complete with stables and a 1500-square-foot adobe house, was Reagan's go-to vacation destination while he was in office, and he entertained some big names there, including Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who gamely wore a cowboy hat during his visit.

4. LBJ Does Some Ranching, Too

Texan Lyndon Johnson was very involved in the everyday operations of his ranch. Johnson, who had gotten into ranching in 1951, grew his LBJ Ranch into a 2700-acre spread populated by 400 head of Hereford cattle.

Johnson was no absentee owner when he was in Washington, either. Johnson frequently headed back on vacations and supposedly drove his foreman crazy by calling every day to talk about the weather on the ranch or how the pastures looked. Today, the National Park Service maintains LBJ's spread as a working ranch, complete with a herd of cattle descended from the Herefords Johnson bred.

5. George W. Bush Initiates a War on Brush

George W. Bush followed in LBJ's footsteps and went to his own Texas ranch when he needed a getaway. Prairie Chapel Ranch, a 1583-acre spread Bush owns near Crawford, Texas, served as the secondary White House throughout Bush's presidency, and he was often shown clearing brush during vacations.

Bush wasn't just doing farm work, though. He exhorted visitors to join the "President's 100-Degrees Club" by running three miles or biking 10 after the mercury hit 100 degrees. Anyone who could pull of the feat got a specialized Under Armour shirt as recognition. We can only hope one of the many foreign dignitaries Bush entertained at the ranch "“ including Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi, Ariel Sharon, and Saudi King Abdullah "“ managed to get one of the coveted shirts into their suitcases.

6. Nixon Gets the Right Ice Cubes

When Richard Nixon wanted a break from Washington, he headed to a modest ranch home he owned on Key Biscayne off Miami. Nixon's "Florida White House," which he visited 50-plus times during his tenure in office, eventually swelled to include three houses and a floating helipad, which the Department of Defense installed at a taxpayer expense of $400,000. (There was plenty of room for taxpayer outrage at the $625,000 total the government spent sprucing up the Florida White House; one itemized expense was $621 for a replacement icemaker because "the President does not like ice with holes in it.")

Given that this house was Nixon's retreat, it's no surprise that some shady dealings transpired on the premises. Nixon allegedly discussed plans for the Watergate break-in at the house, and he holed up there when the coverup came to light. The house fell into disrepair after Nixon sold it, and in 2004 it was razed to make room for a new building.

The Florida White House wasn't Nixon's only retreat, though. He bought a mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean in San Clemente, California shortly after taking office in 1969. Nixon dubbed his new digs "La Casa Pacifica," but the press quickly started referring to the spread as "the Western White House." This house wasn't cheap for taxpayers, either; the government dropped over a million dollars improving this home with temporary office quarters for staffers, helipads, and an upgraded heating system.

7. FDR's Successor Gets His Own Little White House

Harry Truman may have been from Missouri, but he headed south when he needed some R&R. Truman started suffering from exhaustion in late 1946, and his physicians recommended a warm weather vacation to revitalize the President.

Truman took his vacation in a converted duplex in Key West that already held some history. The house, which was originally built in 1890 for the commandant and paymaster of Key West's naval base, had already hosted William Howard Taft while he was in office in 1912. When Thomas Edison developed 41 new weapons to aid in the American efforts in World War I, he spent six months living in the house. Once Truman visited the house, though, it quickly became known as Truman's Little White House. He ended up spending 175 days in Key West over the course of his two terms in office. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy later used the house while they were in office, and it's now open as a tourist attraction.

8. Teddy Roosevelt Goes Bear Hunting

Lounging on the beach is great, but do you really think Teddy Roosevelt would miss the opportunity to do something manly? Roosevelt's vacation in 1905 took him to the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, CO, where he stayed for three weeks while bear hunting.

9. Kennedy Retreats to His Compound

Starting in 1926, Joseph P. Kennedy began taking his family to Hyannisport, Massachusetts, on vacation each summer. His son John liked the area so much that in 1956 he bought a cottage of his own near his parents' digs, and the family soon purchased a third cottage in the area, giving rise to the name "the Kennedy Compound." JFK used his cottage as a base of operations for his presidential campaign and later vacationed there each summer he was in office.

10. George H.W. Bush Prefers Not to Ranch

Not to be outdone by the Kennedys, the Bush family has an even older compound of their own in Kennebunkport, Maine. In 1903 George H. Walker, the grandfather of George H.W. Bush, built a great mansion on his oceanfront estate in Kennebunkport, and the property has remained in the family ever since.

George H.W. Bush used the Kennebunkport compound as his vacation home during his presidency, and George W. Bush made a few getaways to the house as well. Between father and son, they've entertained some pretty big names at their summer house, including Yitzhak Rabin, Vladimir Putin, and Nicolas Sarkozy.

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James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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Did William Henry Harrison Really Die of Pneumonia?
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Whether you learned it in school, or through a jaunty musical number on The Simpsons, the sad tale of William Henry Harrison is one of the more unique in American history. Before being elected the ninth President of the United States in 1840, Harrison was known as a military hero who led his troops to victory against an attack from the Native American confederacy in 1811, later known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. His heroics extended into the War of 1812, when he recovered Detroit from the British and won the Battle of Thames.

Military notoriety has often given way to a road into politics, especially in the 19th century. Harrison was soon elected a senator for Ohio, and then eventually became president after beating incumbent president Martin van Buren in 1840. At 67 years old, Harrison took office as the oldest president to ever be elected—a record that would stand until Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 at 69 years old. Despite the cold, rainy weather in Washington D.C. on inauguration day, Harrison stood in front of the masses without his overcoat, hat, and gloves, and gave an 8445-word speech that would last almost two hours. Three weeks later, Harrison complained of fatigue and of a cold, which later turned into what doctors called pneumonia. On April 4, 1841—exactly one month after taking office—Harrison was dead.

The historical narrative virtually wrote itself: Harrison, after being improperly dressed for the weather, got pneumonia and would go down as a cautionary tale (or a punch line) and as having the shortest presidency on record. But was it really pneumonia that killed him? Harrison's own doctor, Thomas Miller, was skeptical. He wrote:

“The disease was not viewed as a case of pure pneumonia; but as this was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack.”

While revisiting the case a few years ago, writer Jane McHugh and Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak of the University of Maryland School of Medicine came up with a new diagnosis after looking at the evidence through the lens of modern medicine: enteric fever, also known as typhoid fever. They detailed their findings in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases [PDF] and for The New York Times.

Before 1850, Washington D.C.'s sewage was dumped in a marsh just seven blocks upstream from the executive mansion's water supply. McHugh and Mackowiak hypothesize that Harrison was exposed to bacteria—namely Salmonella typhi or S. paratyphi—which could cause enteric fever. Harrison also apparently had a history of severe indigestion, which could have made him more susceptible to such intestinal distress. While treating Harrison, Miller also administered opium and enemas, both of which would cause more harm than good to someone in Harrison's condition.

Harrison would not have been the only person to be afflicted with a gastrointestinal illness while occupying the presidency in this time period. Both James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, according to McHugh and Mackowiak, suffered through severe gastroenteritis, and the duo theorizes it was the same enteric fever as Harrison's. Polk recovered, while Taylor died in office of his illness, less than 10 years after Harrison's death.

Though Harrison's insistence on soldiering through his lengthy, bitterly cold inauguration while dressed in his finest spring wear wasn't a high point in presidential common sense, there's plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that it didn't contribute to the shortest presidency in American history.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Richard Nixon
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Keystone/Getty Images

Often maligned but rarely boring, Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the nation’s 37th president and the first to resign from office. Although his involvement in the Watergate break-in scandal tends to overshadow much of his life, there was more to Nixon than his political impropriety. Check out some facts about his early law enforcement aspirations, why he got criticized for commenting on Charles Manson, and his infamous encounter with Robocop.

1. HE WAS A QUAKER.

Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers have roots in 17th century England and promoted pacifism and spiritual equality among genders at a time those thoughts were not in fashion. When Nixon’s father, Frank, married Quaker Hannah Milhous, he joined a Quaker congregation and the couple raised their children as Quakers. Nixon’s religious faith allowed him an exemption from serving in World War II, but he waived it to enter the Navy. Later, when he was facing impeachment for his role in Watergate, Quakers in Milwaukee and Minneapolis apparently didn’t like the affiliation with the outcast president, petitioning for him to be removed from office months before he resigned.

2. HE WANTED TO JOIN THE FBI.

A photograph of Richard Nixon's 1937 FBI application
Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine Nixon’s mannered disposition fitting comfortably in the stiff-necked legion of G-men that populated J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A little over a month before graduating from law school, Nixon applied to the Bureau in 1937, when he was just 24. After an in-person interview and physical, Nixon waited for a response. He never got one. Later, when Nixon was in office as vice president and queried Hoover about why he had not been accepted, Hoover told him it had been due to budget cuts.

3. HE WROTE LOVE NOTES TO HIS WIFE-TO-BE.

Nixon met his wife, Patricia, while the two appeared in a 1938 Whittier Community Players theater production titled The Dark Tower. Nixon set about courting her, writing letters that seemed uncharacteristically maudlin for the future president. He wrote: “And when the wind blows and the rains fall and the sun shines through the clouds (as it is now) he still resolves, as he did then, that nothing so fine ever happened to him or anyone else as falling in love with Thee – my dearest heart.” The two married in 1940.

4. A DOG HELPED SAVE HIS POLITICAL CAREER.

A family portrait of the Nixons and their dog, Checkers
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Controversy dogged Nixon early on. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower considered dropping Nixon as his vice-presidential running mate after allegations surfaced that Nixon was benefiting from a trust fund filled by his supporters to help offset his political and personal expenses. Going on radio and television to address the issue, Nixon cleverly slipped in an anecdote about his 6-year-old daughter being in love with a cocker spaniel named Checkers that had been “donated” by a campaign supporter. Believing that any man who loved dogs couldn’t be all bad, the public sentiment turned and he remained on the ticket.

“It was labeled as the ‘Checkers speech,’ as though the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my career," Nixon later wrote. "Many of the critics glided over the fact that the fund was thoroughly explained, my personal finances laid bare, and an admittedly emotional but honest appeal made for public support."

5. HE LITERALLY MADE THE MORNINGS DARKER.

In 1973, to save fuel during an energy crisis, Nixon signed a law that mandated that daylight saving would be in effect year-round starting on January 6, 1974. But kids wound up waiting for their school buses in pitch-black conditions, and there was a fear they might get hit by traffic—so the idea was scrapped in 1975.

6. HE HAD A BOWLING ALLEY INSTALLED UNDER THE WHITE HOUSE.

Richard Nixon in the bowling alley at the White House in 1971
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nixon, an avid bowler, was pleased to see that the love of bowling that inspired Harry Truman to build lanes in the White House in 1947 was still going strong when he took office in 1969. That alley was moved in 1955, and Nixon actually ordered that a new lane be built underground under the North Portico entrance and favored the new location because it was more private than the lanes that were open to other staffers. Nixon reportedly bowled a respectable 232.

7. HE WANTED THE SECRET SERVICE TO WEAR UNIFORMS.

The president’s security detail is usually dressed for business: Suits, ties, and sunglasses are the normal attire for many agents, while those patrolling the White House grounds wear police-style uniforms. When Nixon took office, however, he wanted his men to resemble the palace guards he had seen in other countries. The Service assigned to his personal detail wore white double-breasted tunics and hats that vaguely resembled the Empire’s underlings in a Star Wars film. After he was criticized by the press, Nixon abandoned the idea and the outfits were eventually donated to a high school marching band.

8. HE ALMOST MESSED UP CHARLES MANSON’S MURDER TRIAL.

Richard Nixon frowns during a public appearance
AFP/Getty Images

Nixon’s first year in office coincided with the national obsession over cult leader Charles Manson and his followers, some of whom had gone on a murder spree in 1969 that left actress Sharon Tate and several others dead. During Manson’s trial in August 1970, Nixon proclaimed Manson “was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.” Manson’s lawyers moved for a mistrial based on Nixon’s comments. The president quickly retracted his statement, with a spokesperson suggesting he neglected to include the word “allegedly.”

9. HE MET ROBOCOP.

In 1987, Nixon attended a national board meeting for the Boys Club of America. Also on hand to fete organizers and kids was a guy dressed as Robocop. (The unknown actor was definitely not Peter Weller, star of the 1987 feature, and the ill-fitting costume was definitely not the original.) For years, an image of the meeting circulated on the internet without context before a crack sleuth determined it had been snapped for Billboard magazine.

10. HIS MEETING WITH ELVIS MADE NATIONAL ARCHIVES HISTORY.

Richard Nixon greets Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970
National Archives/Getty Images

On December 21, 1970, Nixon greeted one of the more colorful characters to ever enter the White House: Elvis Presley. The singer apparently wanted a badge or other token of law enforcement; as the King was high on fighting the war on drugs at the time. (Unfortunately, Presley had drug issues of his own that may have contributed to his death in 1977.) A photo of the meeting between the two is (as of 2015) the most requested image in the National Archives, outpacing requests for the moon landing, the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights.

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