We Will Spin Them on the Beaches

Why do we care where politicians take their vacations?

Nicolas Sarkozy vacationing in New Hampshire

Famously, Margaret Thatcher hated holidays. Even when once persuaded to take a brief, dull-sounding vacation in Salzburg, the British prime minister could hardly bear the enforced relaxation. Hearing that Helmut Kohl was also vacationing on a nearby Austrian lake, she called up immediately to request bilateral talks with her German counterpart. Kohl, who couldn’t bear Mrs. Thatcher, claimed to be ill, or so the story goes. She went anyway, being presumably fed up with Salzburg—and promptly ran into Kohl, happily eating a large ice cream at an outdoor cafe.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the world is a very different place. Nowadays, world leaders vacationing anywhere within a 500-mile radius of each other don’t have spontaneous meetings, with or without ice cream. They have carefully planned, heavily scripted, “informal” encounters. This month, French President Nicholas Sarkozy happened to rent a house in New Hampshire that happened to be within striking distance of Kennebunkport, the Bush family compound in Maine, where they happened to meet for lunch. “We’re going to give him a hamburger or a hot dog, his choice,” the American president said, sticking to the aw-shucks formula. Grandma Bush showed off banners that various Bush grandchildren had painted to welcome their French friend, and Le Monde declared the event a “sign of Franco-American warming,” just as it was supposed to.

In more ways than one, this particular vacation was risky for Sarkozy. A new French president, taking his first August vacation, not just outside France but in the United States, the spiritual home of “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism? By contrast, Gordon Brown, the new British prime minister, chose to play it safe. Declaring Britain “the best place in the world” to go on holiday, he set out last week for Dorset, where he will observe preparations for the 2012 Olympics, and for Scotland, where he will swat mosquitoes and hunker down to watch the rain. Of course, these choices, both risky and safe, were not fortuitous. Sarkozy was not only declaring the end of Franco-American froideur, he was, by choosing a New Hampshire lake, making a point about his predecessor Jacques Chirac’s vacations—generally in Mauritius, generally including a dozen or so friends and retainers, generally paid for with astonishing quantities of cash—for which the former French president might have long ago been under investigation had he not been protected by presidential immunity.

Brown, meanwhile, chose domestic austerity in deliberate contrast to the ever-flashier foreign holidays of Tony Blair, who during his decade in power progressed from Tuscany to Sardinia to south Florida, where he spent his most recent vacation at the home of one Robin Gibb, better known as one of the Bee Gees. In the interim, the Blairs spent their summer holiday in the Barbados home of pop star Cliff Richard, a destination that was supposed to remain secret, theoretically to ward off the danger of suicide surfers, in practice to prevent howls of derision (and jealousy) at news of yet another lavish “freebie” prime-ministerial vacation. Hill-walking in Scotland is, by contrast, just the sort of character-building holiday of which the British traditionally approve—as Brown well knows.

I could go on, of course, about the ever-increasing political and social significance of international statesmen’s holidays. In Russia, the president always goes to a Black Sea dacha, just like the party bosses and czars before him. In Germany, no one cares where Chancellor Angela Merkel goes, but they write a lot about what she wears when she gets there (baggy shirt, elastic-waist leisure pants, and sneakers on one recent trip). In America, we’d rather tell jokes about how long our president is on holiday. (David Letterman: “Five weeks. That’s a long time. I don’t think he has as an exit strategy for his vacation either.”)

More interesting is the question of why we care, since we didn’t used to. No doubt the increased attention paid to the location, length, and symbolism of politicians’ holidays is related to the fact that a certain number of journalists have to follow the president or the prime minister wherever he goes, and there is a limit to what you can say about a man who is lying on a lawn chair. But the politicians themselves use their holidays for symbolic purposes in ways once unthinkable. Once upon a time, British prime ministers went to their country houses, French leaders went to the Mediterranean, and American presidents went home—to Monticello, to Independence, to Yorba Linda. They were not advised, as was Bill Clinton, that Jackson, Wyo., might be a politically more astute place to relax than Martha’s Vineyard, and they did not choose Scotland over Barbados in order to score political Brownie points.

In this sense, though, that makes them just like the rest of us. Once upon a time, the British upper classes went to their country houses, and everybody else went to Brighton or Blackpool. Americans went to the local equivalent of Ocean City, N.J., or maybe Yellowstone as a special treat. But in the age of the package holiday and the cheap international flight, more people everywhere have at least theoretical access to exotic vacations, spa vacations, and tropical vacations than ever before. Holiday ads are everywhere—and so are people who wish they could take more of them. When a prime minister gets a fancy, free one, or a president takes a long one, we can all feel equally sympathetic—or equally annoyed.

No wonder the spin doctors so bitterly fight one another on the beaches: Here is an issue about which everybody has strong feelings. Especially in August.