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Obama vacation punctured by international, domestic strife

President Obama appeared before live television cameras on Thursday to address the crises in Iraq and Ferguson, Mo.
President Obama appeared before live television cameras on Thursday to address the crises in Iraq and Ferguson, Mo.AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Not even a week into his annual Martha’s Vineyard vacation, President Obama has twice had to don a blazer, between rounds of golf, and appear somber-faced in front of live television cameras to address national and foreign crises.

On Thursday, at a school in Edgartown, Obama spent nine minutes speaking about the targeted military strikes in Iraq and the protests in Ferguson, Mo., about the police killing of an unarmed teenager. On Monday, between a trip to the beach and a Democratic fund-raiser, he delivered an unscheduled four-minute speech on Iraq.

That does not even account for other major calamities he continues to monitor from the vacation spot: ongoing conflicts in Israel, Syria, and Ukraine, an Ebola outbreak raging in West Africa, and an immigration emergency at the border.


Not the most uplifting, or stress-free, August break, by any standard.

In fact, judging by the number and intensity of the events, this might rank as the most disrupted of Obama’s Vineyard vacations since his first in 2009, when Senator Edward M. Kennedy died in Hyannis Port.

“He’s in an environment that’s particularly difficult right now,” said Bill Burton, a former deputy White House Press Secretary. “There’s a lot going on.”

Even a birthday party for Obama’s friend, Ann Jordan, became the subject of political intrigue Wednesday because Hillary Clinton showed up. Days earlier, the former secretary of state had criticized Obama’s foreign policy and the political world was dying to know how awkward the hug between the old rivals would be.

Obama, like all presidents, has faced criticism for his vacation.

“Obviously, his staff didn’t think through the impression of announcing air strikes and then to be shown playing golf within a very short time,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton historian who studies presidents. “It’s a hard time to go on vacation when it seems like parts of the world are literally burning.”


Like his predecessors, Obama has made a conscious effort to show the world how little time he has for recreation.

After Obama’s remarks in Edgartown on Thursday, the White House press office released a photo of his conversation with Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the Justice Department’s investigation of the police shooting in Ferguson. On Tuesday, he was shown with National Security Advisor Susan Rice in front of a pair of telephones. His sleeves were rolled, and he appeared deep in thought, with two fingers pressed against his temple. Rice wore a jogging suit.

“The president is never on vacation, and what’s happening right now proves that,” said Stephanie Cutter, a former adviser to the president.

Often, of course, presidents throughout recent history dealt with crises during supposed downtime.

President Reagan was vacationing at his California ranch in 1983, at the height of the Cold War, when a Soviet fighter jet struck down Korean Air Lines Flight 007. After initially resisting, Reagan flew back to the Capitol only after his staff urged him to, for public appearance’s sake, Zelizer said.

George W. Bush’s vacation on his Texas ranch was interrupted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While vacationing on the Vineyard in 1998, President Clinton ordered a strike on Al Qaeda.

On the flip side, Zelizer said, a president, by canceling a vacation, could amplify the sense of crisis.

“He’d face criticism, holed up in the White House like Jimmy Carter, for having no control of the situation,” Zelizer said. By leaving for a scheduled break, he said, the president sends the signal that “I have everything covered from here.”


Mixing pleasure with business can also lead to criticism, if not handled deftly. The second President Bush appeared insensitive when, vacationing at his parents’ Maine retreat in August 2002, he stood at a tee at the Cape Arundel Golf Club and railed against “terrorist killers’’ in the Middle East. Then, barely missing a beat, he turned with his golf club and told reporters, “Now watch this drive.’’

He gave up golf the following year.

Obama is scheduled to leave the Vineyard on Sunday, attend a couple of days of White House meetings, and on Tuesday resume his vacation, which he is scheduled to continue until the following Sunday. His office also has released a steady stream of descriptions of his calls to world leaders — the presidents of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ukraine, and the prime ministers of Turkey, Israel, Iraq, and Canada.

“So I think, as many have observed over the past few days, there’s never a perfect time for the President to take some time away with his family,” Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz told reporters Wednesday. “But I think we can also all agree that it’s valuable to recharge your batteries.”

Turmoil has punctured the president’s island retreat in the past. Last summer, he was interrupted just once — when Egypt’s military overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president. In 2011, the day he departed the Vineyard, he appeared on live television urging Americans to hunker down for the impending Hurricane Irene.


Kennedy’s 2009 funeral might have been the most personally difficult interruption to an Obama vacation, but the president hardly shrunk from the responsibility to eulogize his political mentor in Boston.

He and his wife, Michelle, left early from Martha’s Vineyard on a Friday night to avoid a tropical depression, then the president walked through light rain through the Back Bay that Saturday morning to meet privately with Kennedy’s widow, Victoria, before the funeral. After delivering the eulogy in Roxbury, he returned to Martha’s Vineyard for a final full day on the island.

Obama’s Hawaiian Christmas plans have also been curtailed. In 2012, he cut his holidays short to address the ongoing “fiscal cliff” negotiations in Washington — then returned to the islands on New Year’s Day, just 45 minutes after Congress ushered through a bill.

Obama’s small traveling staff of close advisers had daily 3 a.m. calls with security advisers in Washington during his 2009 Hawaiian holiday after a failed attempt by a terrorist to ignite an underwear bomb on a plane.

Obama had been preparing to go snorkeling with his family when he decided to address the country, Burton said.

“He suited up, attended to his statement, delivered it, and then was off,” Burton said.

More coverage:

Obama wants open investigation into Ferguson shooting

Mo. State Highway Patrol to supervise security in Ferguson


Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.