Hammocks of Power
A new exhibit—along with insights from Laura Bush—reveals how presidents used retreats for both R&R and diplomacy
The Oval Office may be the seat of power in the U.S., but sometimes that power shifts to a sun-dappled hollow in the mountains of Maryland, or even to Graceland. That’s the gist of “Presidential Retreats: Away from the White House,” an exhibition running through October 6 at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
Through photos, artifacts and anecdotes, the exhibition chronicles how U.S. presidents used various retreats to not only escape the high-pressure crucible of D.C., but to build bonds. Photos range from the frivolous (Jimmy Carter tobogganing face-first down a slope at Camp David, Maryland) to the momentous (Franklin D. Roosevelt sitting on a log at Camp David—then called Shangri-La—conferring with Winston Churchill during the height of WWII).
One of the more vivid stories derives from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s time at his ranch in Stonewall, Texas, where he’d often take new staffers on tours of the property in his convertible. While rolling downhill above a lake, he’d pretend to lose his brakes and crash the car into the water. Little did the newbies know that the car was amphibious.
Former First Lady Laura Bush remembers these retreats as places for building personal as well as political relationships. “At the [Crawford, Texas] ranch or Camp David, foreign leaders were right there with us having breakfast,” she says. “We were so much more relaxed. There’s an intimacy and an informality to it that makes it a lot better.” Some of Bush’s fondest memories involve their first guests at Camp David, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie, back in February 2001.
“We watched Meet the Parents with them,” she says, laughing.
The heartland proved a highlight for Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his wife. “He was a huge Elvis fan, so we took him to Graceland and he loved it,” Bush recalls. “He sang ‘Love Me Tender’ to Lisa Marie.” During a Koizumi visit to the Crawford ranch, she adds, “we had cheeseburgers and George and [Prime Minister] Koizumi sat by the pool talking all afternoon. Both of their fathers fought against each other in World War II. There was something very nice about having one of your best international friends be the son of an enemy.”