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Vacation Time  
The big news last week was not that President Bush has finally made his stem cell decision (what was it again?), but that he announced it during the middle of his 31-day vacation.  

    Aug. 13 —  There was the president, with the Texas prairie behind him, in a suit and tie addressing the American people. After a week of images of the president relaxing in Crawford, the speech left me confused (and not just because his stem cell announcement was a “non-decision decision” much like a Watergate-era “non-denial denial”).  

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  I MEAN, IS the president on vacation or is he working down there on his 1,600-acre ranch? Certainly no one begrudges the president a vacation (after all, it’s tough work delegating jobs to Dick Cheney), but 31 days is a long time.
        To his credit, Bush didn’t follow his predecessor’s lead and take a poll to determine the best place to vacation. But had he done a survey, he might have discovered that most Americans—especially the majority of American workers who get a mere two weeks of paid vacation and the millions of American part-timers, hourly workers and Web site columnists who get no paid vacation at all—think that 31 days is a very long time to be away from one’s workplace.
        Does a president even get that much vacation time? I mean, despite an envious salary ($400,000 a year, plus unlimited use of that little refrigerator just off the Oval Office that’s always filled with Diet Cokes and fancy seltzers), the president is just another working stiff.
        This concept prompted many questions. For instance, does he even get a paycheck and, if so, where does he cash it? Does he go to the ATM when he’s short on dough or does Dick Cheney do that for him, too?
        As you might expect, when I called the White House, they were uninterested in helping me compare a president (who is on a really long vacation) to the average American worker (who is not). After all, these are the same people who dubbed the vacation the “Home to the Heartland Tour,” lest the public see it for what it really is: The “Home-on-the-Range, Get-Out-My-Putter, The-Bass-Are-Jumping-In-That-Stocked-Pond-Out-Back, Fire-Up-the-Barbecue-While-I-Take-This-Quick-Call-From-Dick” tour.
        Don’t misunderstand. I have nothing against people naming their vacations. I’ve always named mine. Who could forget my “Winter of Discontent” tour when I visited an old girlfriend during a Christmas break only to get dumped again? And what about my immortal “Baffin or Bust” tour, when three college buddies and I tried to drive to Canada’s Baffin Island only to hit a moose and turn back 1,000 miles short of our goal? The moose was furious.
        This year, my summer will consist of sitting around an overcrowded public pool in inner-city Brooklyn. I’m calling it my “Cooling off in the ‘Hood” tour.
        The White House wouldn’t tell me much, but I was able to confirm a few things:
        President Bush does get a regular paycheck, in his case, every month. It is cut by the White House Office of Administration. The president opts for direct deposit (although the White House wouldn’t tell me if he goes to an ATM for cash or merely asks for “cash back” when he uses his debit card at the supermarket).
        But while the rest of us check our pay stub every week to see how much vacation time we’ve accrued, the president needn’t bother. His vacation time doesn’t accrue. In fact, for a guy who’s always on vacation, he’s never actually on vacation.
        “He doesn’t get vacation time,” said White House spokeswoman Anne Womack. “He is responsible to perform his duties 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
        Womack was sensitive to my questions because of a recent Washington Post article that said that President Bush has been on vacation—or en route to a vacation spot—for 42 percent of his young presidency.
        “No matter where he is, he’s performing his duties,” Womack said, suddenly conferring “affairs of state” status to presidential jogging, golfing, fishing or going into town for a cheeseburger.
        The White House did reveal the president’s reading list for the month, which includes Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” (if he finishes it, I’ll vote to re-elect him), but it’s clear the president prefers active vacations.
        “I’m the kind of person who likes to be outdoors,” the president said on the first day of his vacation. “It keeps my mind and my spirits up and it keeps me a balanced person.” The good news is that the president is obviously not an agoraphobiac (a person with fear of open places), but the bad news is that he may be a cleisiophobiac (a person with fear of being locked in an enclosed place), an eicophobiac (fear of home surroundings), an eisoptrophobiac (fear of seeing oneself in a mirror) or a thassophobiac (fear of sitting).
        “I need to be outdoors,” he added, confirming at least the thassophobia diagnosis. “I think it’s important to be outside and do work.” (The president’s plan to make the stem cell speech during his daily beach volleyball game was apparently scuttled by advisers.)
        Of course, there’s nothing in the Constitution—not even that bit about the State of the Union address—that requires the president to be in Washington at all, and some presidents have taken full advantage. I called presidential historians to get more information on this, but none got back to me because they were all, apparently, on vacation.
        But I did a little research and found that Bush’s vacation is the longest presidential sojourn since Richard Nixon escaped to his San Clemente estate for more than a month in 1969. But other presidents have enjoyed time away. President Reagan spent 335 days on his ranch during his presidency, but he was a hard worker compared to his successor George Bush, who spent 543 days (remember, he had only one term) at either Camp David or his Maine compound.
        President Clinton’s vacations to Martha’s Vineyard were typically two to three weeks, although he attended so many fundraisers and political events that he barely got out of his suit (there was a guy who really knew how to mix business and pleasure).
        In the end, I concluded that President Bush was merely doing what every American wishes he could do: taking a break from the demands of a demanding job. I was assisted in this opinion by something Dan Rather said after the president’s stem cell speech the other night.
        Instead of spearheading an extensive analysis of the speech, Rather returned viewers to their regularly scheduled summer programming.
        “This is the kind of story,” Rather said, “that radio and television has some difficulty with because it requires such depth.” He advised viewers to read a newspaper.
        I guess ol’ Dan is on vacation, too.

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post and the author of “HAIR! Mankind’s Historic Quest to End Baldness” (Random House). His website is at http://www.gersh.tv
       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
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