- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 1, 2014

President Obama differs from his predecessor on more than just policy.

Compared with President George W. Bush, Mr. Obama has rarely visited Camp David, the sprawling, secluded retreat in northern Maryland that has become a regular getaway spot for presidents over the past 70 years.

Although Mr. Obama hasn’t shunned the location entirely — he spent his 52nd birthday there last year — veteran Washington reporters and pundits say it’s clear that the 44th president hasn’t warmed up to Camp David in the same way as did Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and Mr. Bush.

“I suspect part of the reason is because his daughters would prefer to be in the city, prefer to be at the White House,” said Ken Walsh, chief White House correspondent for U.S. News & World Report and author of the book “From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats.”

“I’ve been told that as an urban man, a guy from Chicago, he doesn’t take to Camp David and its rural setting as much as other presidents have. That’s another part of it,” he said.

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the president’s opinion of the retreat. Other political reporters have theorized that Mr. Obama isn’t fond of Camp David because it doesn’t have a full golf course, and the president prefers to spend weekends on the links.

PHOTOS: Presidential perk

Whatever the reason, records show the retreat isn’t a favorite of this president.

Since taking office, Mr. Obama has made 32 trips to Camp David and spent all or part of 78 days there, said Mark Knoller, a longtime White House correspondent for CBS News who tracks in detail presidential travels.

By this point in his presidency, Mr. Bush had visited the retreat 104 times, more than three times as often, and spent all or part of 329 days there. Throughout his eight years in office, the former Texas governor went to Camp David 150 times and spent all or part of 491 days there, Mr. Knoller said.

For Mr. Bush, the location offered an escape from Washington and an opportunity to gather family and friends in a relaxed, scenic environment, said Bush White House press secretary Scott McClellan.

“The extended Bush family enjoyed gathering there for Christmas. The president and Mrs. Bush enjoyed inviting their closest friends to spend weekends at Camp David,” Mr. McClellan said. “I think it allowed him to relax and unwind a little more than a president can at the White House. Having a retreat like Camp David is a great benefit for any president to decompress, get outside the White House fishbowl and spend time with family and close friends, and I think that is important for helping to keep a president grounded.”

Frequent guests

Other presidents also have embraced Camp David’s relative seclusion.

President Clinton visited more frequently during his second term. President George H.W. Bush also spent a good deal of time there, and his daughter, Dorothy, was married at the retreat.

The elder Mr. Bush’s predecessor, historians say, escaped to the retreat almost every chance he got.

“President Reagan is one of the presidents who loved it the most. He’d go there just about every weekend,” Mr. Walsh said.

Camp David, built by the New Deal Works Progress Administration, opened in 1938 as a retreat for federal workers. When it became the president’s compound, Roosevelt dubbed it “Shangri-La.”

Eisenhower changed the name to Camp David, hosted foreign guests and held at least one Cabinet meeting there.

Presidents Nixon, Kennedy and Johnson regularly used the retreat, which offers horseback riding, hiking and other outdoor activities. President Ford rode around the property on a snowmobile.

But Camp David also is rich with history.

Mr. Carter famously hosted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in a meeting that resulted in the Camp David Accords, clearing the way for an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher also met at Camp David, and other presidents have used the retreat to host international guests and dignitaries. Among the presidential guests over the years are British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

For all his apparent lack of enthusiasm for the compound, Mr. Obama did use Camp David when he hosted the Group of Eight summit in 2012, but only after the White House’s plan for Chicago was abruptly scrapped.

Mr. Obama prefers getaways to Hawaii, his home in Chicago and elsewhere.

For security and logistical purposes, those trips are more complicated than they would be for Camp David.

“In Obama’s case, it is much harder to protect him in Chicago, in an urban setting,” Mr. Walsh said. “Camp David has the advantage of not being disruptive to a neighborhood, and it’s easy to protect because it’s a government compound. And it’s not expensive to go there because it’s a permanent facility. Going to Chicago is much more expensive than going to Camp David.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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