On August 2, George W. Bush fled the clamor of the Capitol and hopped aboard Air Force One for a two-and-a-half-hour flight to his Texas ranch - 1,300 miles from the Oval Office. Bush's five-week vacation has set a new record for the longest presidential hiatus in US history. It also marks a personal best for Bush, who had already established several benchmarks for excessive executive layoffs.
According to the Washington Post's tabulations, by August 2003, Mr. Bush had spent 250 days - 21% of his presidency - on vacation (166 of those days ensconced at his Crawford ranch). This year's jaunt marks Bush's 49th trip to Crawford since he was handed the presidency.
When it comes to jetting off on extended vacations, George W. is simply following in the contrails of his famous father. President George H. W. Bush spent 543 days relaxing at Camp David or Kennebunkport, Maine, all on the taxpayers' dime. Even Ronald Reagan (no stranger to clearing brush on the family ranch) didn't come close to the Bush Family Record. Reagan only spent 335 days at his Santa Barbara ranch during the entire eight years of his presidency.
For taxpayers interested in getting a good return on their investment, Democrats clearly have the better record as conscientious, time-clock-punching government employees. Workaholic Bill Clinton claimed just 152 days of vacation in the first three years of his presidency. In 2000, Clinton clipped his vacation to a mere three days. Jimmy Carter was the real stuck-in-the-saddle champ. Carter only took 79 days off - all at the family home in Georgia.
When it comes to being a laid-back leader, Mr. Bush is no slouch. In his first three years, Bush took more vacation days than Clinton claimed in seven years. Unlike his Democratic predecessor, W. shies away from working nights and weekends. Even on workdays, Bush insists on interrupting affairs-of-state to take a two-hour, mid-day exercise break.
Bush repeatedly declares, through stubbornly clenched jaw, that the US will never retreat from its historic mission to bring freedom and democracy to whatever country the White House chooses to invade. But when it comes to his personal mission, Bush is only too happy to beat a retreat from the Oval Office and escape to Crawford - his "little patch of paradise" - where he can clear brush and pedal a mountain bike to his heart's content.
A week into his vacation, Bush outlined his day's schedule to members of the press corps, He indicated that he planned to putter around the ranch, clear some brush, do some bicycle riding, go fishing, catch a nap, meet with Condi Rice, and work on reading a book before finally hitting the sack for a good night's sleep around 9:30PM.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan rushed to justify Bush's escape to Crawford by arguing that "spending time outside of Washington always gives the president a fresh perspective of what's on the minds of the American people." But average Americans aren't allowed to knock on the ranch-house door. Bush only meets with the people he chooses to entertain - in this case, Secretary of State Rice, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Aside from several well-orchestrated off-ranch fundraising forays, the closest Mr. Bush has come to exposing himself to the American people during his long vacation came when he attended a Little League game. But the Secret Service made certain that Mr. Bush's field trip was not disrupted by any "fresh perspectives" and the Chief Executive didn't even hang around to autograph baseballs.
Mr. Bush's best opportunity to cash in on McClellan's rosy goal of gaining "a fresh perspective of what's on the minds of the American people" lies conveniently at-hand just down the road from the gate of the Bush ranch where thousands of average Americans are camped out at Camp Casey. Gold Star Mother Cindy Sheehan has stationed herself at Camp Casey in hopes of asking the commander-in-chief to explain the "noble cause" that claimed the life of her 24-year-old son in an Iraq fire-fight
Every time the presidential motorcade high-tails it past this growing encampment of engaged and passionate pro-life Americans, the commander-in-chief sends a clear message that he has no time for any "fresh perspectives" that would conflict with his oft-stated "resolve" to remain in Iraq until every last terrorist is removed from the face of the Earth.
Pestered by the press to explain his refusal to meet with Sheehan, Bush replied with uncharacteristic diplomacy: "I think it's important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say." He then proceeded to put his cowboy-booted foot in his mouth by quickly adding - with a stunning display of thoughtless insensitivity - "But I think it's also important for me to go on with my life."
And, with those words - as US soldiers continued to face death and fall in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan - Mr. Bush trotted off for a two-hour bike ride with Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong.
Clearly, Bush's average day has nothing in common with the experience of the average grunt on the frontlines of Bush's various wars. The worst misadventure Mr. Bush faces in Crawford is a back sprain from chopping mesquite, a skinned arm from toppling off his mountain bike or, God forbid, a near-death experience with a bowl of pretzels.
But for the recruits and reservists facing insurgent snipers, car bombs and IEDs in Baghdad and Kabul, there is no vacation. To the contrary: In many cases, these men and women - the hardest-working government employees on Uncle Sam's payroll - have seen their promised leaves canceled and their tours-of-duty extended time and time-again.
During the time George W. has been focusing on the important business of "getting on with my life," America's young soldiers have been dying at the rate of three-a-day - the highest mortality rate so far this year.
It's time for Mr. Bush to put away the chainsaw, get his head out of the Crawford underbrush and focus on these life-and-death realities. Cindy Sheehan and the other grieving families that have followed George W. to Crawford have a message for the Leader of the Free World. It's the same message that Bush once broadcast to Osama bin Laden: "You can run but you can't hide."
The next time Bush's motorcade speeds down the roadway that links his 1,583-acre bunker to the outside world, he should be forced to look at hundreds of posters bearing the number of young men and women who have died on duty while he was off on vacation.
As of August 26, those numbers were: 76 killed; more than 350 wounded.
For a comprehensive accounting of war deaths and injuries, updated daily, see the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count: www.icasualties.org
Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of Earth Island Journal, the editor of The-Edge, and co-founder of Environmentalists Against War