Vacationer-in-chief? How Obama’s R&R stacks up to other presidents

Rick Klein, Olivier Knox, Richard Coolidge and Ali Dukakis
Power Players

Top Line

There may never be a good time to take a vacation when you’re president. But the last couple of weeks made for particularly bad timing.

Now, as President Obama prepares to return from his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, the commander-in-chief might very well want a vacation from his vacation, which was more notable for its many interruptions than its relaxation -- that is, unless you’re counting the president’s many rounds of golf.

The president held multiple news conferences -- and in an unusual fashion, even broke from his vacation for a two-day trip back to Washington -- as he addressed the developing crises in Iraq and Ferguson, Mo.

But Obama is just the latest in a long line of presidents to adopt the “working vacation.”

“Early on, when vacations began to get criticism -- for example, during the Eisenhower administration -- the press secretary, Jim Haggerty, invented the phrase ‘working vacation,’” Larry Knutson, author of the new book “Away From the White House: Presidential Escapes, Retreats and Vacations,” said during a recent interview with “Top Line.” “And we've had working vacations ever since.”

In his 37-year career as a reporter for the Associated Press, Knutson has covered presidential vacations ranging from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush.

Despite public jabs at Obama for socializing in the midst of domestic and international turmoil – the president was notably criticized for hitting a golf course directly after his somber statement on the death of U.S. journalist James Foley – Knutson said that when it comes to taking time off, Obama ranks “right in the middle” among his 43 predecessors.

“I wouldn't say that he's on top at all. He's taken regular vacations; he's certainly not taken as many or as long as some recent presidents,” he said. “It's an easy criticism, and it's been made from the very beginning.”

Knutson pointed to the case of Chester Arthur, the 21st president, as an early example of a president whose vacations drew particularly intense criticism.

“He fished from New England to Florida to the Chesapeake Bay to the Atlantic Ocean, and at one point [made] a real, almost military expedition to then-very new Yellowstone National Park,” he explained. “And a newspaper in New York proposed half-seriously that the president's pay may be docked every time he went fishing or went on a vacation.”

Other presidents have managed to build their own mystique through their vacations.

In order to prevent the public eye from passing judgment on his holiday habits, Knutson said President Ronald Reagan tried to obscure the press’ view of his off-duty activities, like yard work and horseback riding, while vacationing at his California ranch -- literally.

“In Reagan's case, although he rode and cut brush, famously television was kept more than an arm's length away and had to set up cameras on a nearby mountaintop with lenses that I am told have been used to photograph the moon,” he said.

Despite the longstanding public disenchantment with presidential retreats, Knutson listed a handful of American leaders who were successfully able to unplug from their high-stress jobs for a some rest and relaxation.

“Dwight Eisenhower golfed from coast to coast. … John Kennedy sailed out of Hyannis Port and throughout the country and was photographed playing touch football with all of his nephews and nieces,” he said. “Lyndon Johnson relaxed totally at the ranch in Texas.”

To find out which president holds the record for longest vacation and which two presidents never took any vacations at all, check out this edition of “Top Line.”

ABC News Jordyn Phelps, Gary Westphalen, Melissa Young and Barry Haywood contributed to this episode.