Fighting On the Beaches

Famously, Margaret Thatcher hated holidays. Even when persuaded to take a brief one in Salzburg, the British prime minister could hardly bear the enforced relaxation. Upon hearing that Helmut Kohl was vacationing at a nearby Austrian lake, she called to request bilateral talks with her German counterpart. Kohl, who couldn’t bear Thatcher, claimed to be ill, or so the story goes. She went anyway — and promptly ran into Kohl, eating a large ice cream at an outdoor cafe.

Fast-forward a couple of decades. Nowadays world leaders vacationing within a 500-mile radius of one another don’t have spontaneous meetings, with or without ice cream. They have carefully planned, scripted, “informal” encounters. This month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy happened to rent a house in New Hampshire that happened to be relatively near 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 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 trip was risky for Sarkozy. A new French president, taking his first August vacation not just outside of France but in the United States, the spiritual home of “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism? By contrast, the new British prime minister, Gordon Brown, played it safe. 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 were not fortuitous. Sarkozy was both declaring the end of Franco-American froideur and making a point about his predecessor Jacques Chirac’s vacations — generally in Mauritius, generally including a dozen friends and retainers, generally paid for with astonishing quantities of cash — for which Chirac might have long ago been investigated had he not been protected by presidential immunity.

Brown, meanwhile, chose domestic austerity in deliberate contrast to 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 Robin Gibb, better known as one of the Bee Gees. Earlier, the Blairs visited the Barbados home of Sir Cliff Richard, better known as the pop star Cliff Richard, a destination that was supposed to remain secret, theoretically to ward off suicide surfers, in practice to prevent howls of derision (and jealousy) at yet another lavish “freebie.” Hill-walking in Scotland, by contrast, is the sort of character-building holiday of which the British traditionally approve.

I could go on, of course, about the ever-increasing political and social significance of statesmen’s holidays. In Russia, the president goes to a Black Sea dacha, 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 joke about how long our president is on holiday (David Letterman: “Five weeks. That’s a long time. I don’t think he has an exit strategy for his vacation either.”).

More interesting is why we all care, since we didn’t used to. No doubt the increased attention is related to the fact that a number of journalists follow the president or prime minister wherever each goes, and there is a limit to what you can say about a man who is lying on a lawn chair. But politicians today use their holidays for symbolic purposes that were previously 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 Bill Clinton was, that Jackson, Wyo., might be a more politically astute place to relax than Martha’s Vineyard, and they did not choose Scotland over Barbados to score political points.

In this sense, though, that makes them 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, or maybe Yellowstone, as a special treat. But in the age of package holidays and cheap international flights, more people than ever before have at least theoretical access to exotic vacations. Advertisements are everywhere; so are people who wish they could take more trips. 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.

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