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A Brief History of Presidential Vacations

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President Obama is headed with his family to Martha's Vineyard for a little rest and relaxation, where he'll join in the grand tradition of presidential vacations. Where did past presidents get away? Let's take a look.

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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Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Barack Obama Taps Kehinde Wiley to Paint His Official Presidential Portrait
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Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist known for his grand portraits of African-American subjects, has painted Michael Jackson, Ice-T, and The Notorious B.I.G. in his work. Now the artist will have the honor of adding Barack Obama to that list. According to the Smithsonian, the former president has selected Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait, which will hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley’s portraits typically depict black people in powerful poses. Sometimes he models his work after classic paintings, as was the case with "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps.” The subjects are often dressed in hip-hop-style clothing and placed against decorative backdrops.

Portrait by Kehinde Wiley
"Le Roi a la Chasse"
Kehinde Wiley, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Smithsonian also announced that Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald has been chosen by former first lady Michelle Obama to paint her portrait for the gallery. Like Wiley, Sherald uses her work to challenge stereotypes of African-Americans in art.

“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former president and first lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a press release. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”

The tradition of the president and first lady posing for portraits for the National Portrait Gallery dates back to George H.W. Bush. Both Wiley’s and Sherald’s pieces will be revealed in early 2018 as permanent additions to the gallery in Washington, D.C.

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The Time Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot in the Chest, Then Gave a Speech Anyway
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 14, 1912—105 years ago today—Theodore Roosevelt was on the campaign trail in Milwaukee, running for another term. It was a tough race: Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson proved to be a formidable opponent, and William Howard Taft, while unpopular, was the Republican incumbent. Roosevelt was running as a third-party Progressive, and in order to keep pace with his big-ticket rivals he had to work hard. By this point in the election season, he was giving 15 to 20 speeches per day, most of which stretched on for an hour or sometimes more. But this day, TR didn't feel too well. His throat was scratchy, he was tired, and so he planned a relatively quick stop.

What Roosevelt and his security team didn't know was that a man with a .38 caliber revolver had been trailing the campaign since they departed New Orleans. For a thousand miles, he rode quietly, just waiting to get his shot at the Colonel.

John Schrank was a Bavarian-born saloon-keeper from New York. He'd had some strange and troubling dreams in recent months, mostly about President McKinley, whose assassination resulted in Roosevelt's first term. In his dreams, Schrank said that President McKinley asked him to avenge his death and protect democracy from a three-term president. All Schrank had to do was kill Roosevelt before he could be reelected.

"BUT FORTUNATELY I HAD MY MANUSCRIPT"

Roosevelt stood in the seat of his automobile to wave at the crowds and Schrank, who was standing in the front row of the crowd, had his shot. He took aim: point-blank, right at Roosevelt’s head. Then three things happened at the same time. A bystander hit Schrank’s arm; Roosevelt’s security detail spotted the gun and leapt from the car; Schrank pulled the trigger. The shot landed squarely in Roosevelt’s chest just as Schrank was tackled and put in a headlock by the bodyguard. Roosevelt is said not to have noticed he was hit until he reached into his overcoat and felt the blood on his fingers.

But it turns out that Teddy’s long-winded speeches saved his life that day: The bullet traveled through a 50-page copy of his prepared speech and the steel eyeglasses case he carried in the same pocket. The bullet was slowed enough not to reach his lung or heart, which Teddy deduced from the absence of blood when he spoke or coughed. He refused to go to a hospital and insisted on giving his speech.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose,” he began. He spoke for at least 55 more minutes (though some estimates say 90), still wearing his blood-soaked shirt. (You can read a stenographer’s report of his speech here.)

The pages of the speech that saved Roosevelt's life were later bound into a book.
The pages of the speech that saved Roosevelt's life were later bound into a book, which—along with the eyeglasses case and the shirt TR was wearing—can be seen at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City.
Erin McCarthy

Roosevelt would spend the next eight days in the hospital. The bullet had lodged in his chest wall and removing it was deemed too unsafe. The wound healed and he never reported trouble from the injury again. Despite having lived through his assassination attempt, the presidency would not be Teddy’s again: Woodrow Wilson’s 41 percent of the vote meant the office would be his, though Roosevelt did beat out incumbent Taft, marking the only time a sitting president has come in third place in a reelection bid.

Schrank, in the meantime, was apprehended immediately. He lived the rest of his life in an insane asylum, and died of pneumonia in 1943.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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