- - Sunday, November 25, 2012

By Peter Hannaford
Threshold Editions, $16, 338 pages


Presidents are never really off duty. However, they do have opportunities to change the venue of where they deal with the burdens of the office.

While the topic is not one that gets a great deal of attention in history books, it can provide meaningful insights into the personalities and backgrounds of the men who have occupied the Oval Office. Peter Hannaford engagingly explores the subject in “Presidential Retreats: Where They Went and Why They Went There.”

Mr. Hannaford, a former aide to President Reagan who has written several books on presidential history, devotes a chapter to each chief executive. To give readers more context, he also summarizes the life of each president, including the highlights of his time in office. In addition, he chronicles some of the foreign travels of presidents that enabled them to experience a change of setting and display their diplomatic prowess.

It is an effective approach and one that enables readers to absorb information in bite-sized morsels. This book is more fun to read than the often dry history texts to which we often were exposed in school. Mr. Hannaford also helpfully provides contact information for people who want to visit the sites he discusses.

He notes how vacation destinations have ranged from the presidential retreat Camp David (originally called Shangri-La but renamed by President Eisenhower in honor of his grandson) in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains to rented mansions on Martha’s Vineyard. Many wealthy presidents had their own vacation homes, while others depended on the kindness of strangers and friends.

These days, when presidents travel, the White House moves an entire telecommunications operation with them. It used to be considerably more primitive. Mr. Hannaford provides great detail about the facilities at President Theodore Roosevelt’s home, Sagamore Hill, where he spent almost the entire summer each year of his presidency.

“The presidential staff had summer offices in the Village of Oyster Bay [New York] and also took over the library of the main house. There was a single telephone line at home, but multiple lines at the office, where most communication from Washington was conducted,” Mr. Hannaford writes.

Mr. Hannaford, whom this writer has known professionally for 20 years, notes that many chief executives, including Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan, were criticized for spending an extensive amount of time at vacation homes. During his eight years in office, Ike spent 456 days at several such venues while Mr. Reagan spent considerable time at his ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif.

The author notes that Mr. Reagan’s staff left him alone as much as possible there because he used it “as a genuine retreat from the intense daily schedule of the White House.” However, Reagan occasionally entertained dignitaries there, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

Vacation spots can cause political problems for chief executives. President William Howard Taft, who spent most of his adult summers at his family’s summer home in Murray Bay, Canada, feared public criticism if he vacationed out of the country. Therefore, while in office, he spent summers in Beverly, Mass.

Mr. Hannaford’s book is especially interesting when he describes the foreign travels of presidents.

President Nixon’s path-breaking summit meetings in Moscow and Beijing are among the most notable of these journeys. He used both trips to reset the terms of the United States’ relationships with these superpowers. Mr. Hannaford gives brief summaries of those trips and their historical significance.

The discussions about foreign trips would have been more helpful if they had included references to books where readers can find additional information. The bibliography mostly includes books that focus on presidential homes and retreats rather than on the overall records of the presidents.

Mr. Hannaford’s summaries of the high and low points of each president’s tenure are brief, but helpful. His biases occasionally come through, and he usually has more favorable things to say about Republicans than about Democrats.

These minor shortcomings don’t detract much from the overall caliber of “Presidential Retreats: Where They Went and Why They Went There.” It’s an enjoyable and insightful look at an often overlooked topic.

• Claude R. Marx, an award-winning journalist, regularly reviews books for publications such as the Boston Globe and the Weekly Standard. He is writing a biography of William Howard Taft.

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