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After landing on the airstrip at his Texas ranch, Lyndon B. Johnson would often hop into his white Lincoln Continental convertible, crack a beer, and gun the engine. Sometimes, he’d go 90 down the tarmac, blaring country music. Other times, he’d take the impulse off-road, tearing through backcountry terrain—and tearing up the bottom of his car.
LBJ terrified his passengers, exasperated his Secret Service agents, and infuriated his mechanics, whom he’d order to repair his car by the next day—just in case he felt like another joy ride.
“It struck me that seeing the presidents at their retreats or hideaways would give us an insight into what they are really like as people,” says journalist Kenneth T. Walsh, who recounts LBJ’s antics in his new book From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats. For instance, “Johnson was beyond demanding. He had to dominate everyone and everything around him, and you really saw that at the LBJ ranch.”
Walsh is chief White House correspondent for U.S. News and World Report and author of three other political books. He’s covered the White House since 1986, and few political revelations could surprise the 58-year-old Bethesda resident. This was not the case, he found, with the personal habits of our presidents on vacation.
Though Walsh was troubled to learn the extent of LBJ’s unpleasantness, the seasoned historian reveled in his discovery of Abraham Lincoln’s time away. During the oppressively swampy summer months, Lincoln commuted 3 miles uphill from his retreat to work at the Soldier’s Home, where injured soldiers went to live.
“His time at the Soldier’s Home was compelling as a story for me because he had a personal reason for wanting to be there, besides it being slightly cooler because of its higher elevation than the capitol,” says Walsh. “In addition to the pressure of the Civil War, Lincoln had lost his 12-year-old son, so the grief-stricken president and his wife wanted to be isolated from the crowded halls of the White House.”
In his research for the book, Walsh interviewed all five living presidents and myriad political advisers, historians, and journalists to get a sense of who our presidents really were: the men their wives married, the fathers their children knew. The result is a
collection of anecdotal snapshots, primarily about 18 presidents.
Walsh dishes dirt on presidential adultery, paranoia, and other juicy tidbits. Far more often, however, he describes scenes of everyday domesticity that are just as revealing: George Washington in the morning, galloping around Mount Vernon for the fun of it; Franklin Roosevelt baring his atrophied, paralyzed legs in swim trunks at Warm Springs.
“I’m always looking for fresh ways to look at the president and the presidency,” Walsh says about his motivations for writing the book. “Who they are on vacation often says a lot…about how they made decisions in office.” —Hope Cristol
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.