Please, Mr. President, take a real vacation.
I’m sure you’ve had time to relax on the golf course and enjoy an evening or two with old friends during your couple of weeks at Martha’s Vineyard. Necessary, but not sufficient.
These outings provide diversion, but not release. You cannot do what a true vacation allows. You cannot lose yourself. You cannot vacate. If you did manage to lose yourself, there’s an entire squadron of Secret Service personnel on the other side of that door, ready and able to go find you.
If you ask some of the business tycoons who are your neighbors this week, they’ll tell you how valuable they find it to take a break once in a while, to let the spring come unsprung. And they are managing enterprises somewhat less complicated than the World As We Know It, which is your daily responsibility.
I once had a newspaper publisher tell me why he hired his best people to work the night shift. “I’ll give it all I’ve got, all day long,” he said, without an ounce of resentment, “but after 8 PM, the biggest decision I’m making is ‘red or white?’” Many insist that their only real opportunity to think deeply comes when their toes are in a pool and their phones are turned off.
And they don’t work from a home office!
When you campaigned for president, you said your goal would be to have a presidency that “changes the trajectory of America,” like Ronald Reagan’s. The media grabbed hold of the next phrase, which suggested that Bill Clinton’s presidency had been something less.
Reagan knew how to step away from the pressures. Whether it was horseback riding in California or napping upstairs in the White House, he wasn’t the workaholic that all our recent Democratic presidents have been.
He also was shot. Remember when Alexander Haig proclaimed, “I’m in charge now”? That became the lead in Haig’s New York Times obituary, but the point here is that Reagan, for a short time, was not in charge. By his own account, those moments “not in charge” changed him. He returned to the White House with a deeper resolve.
Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until you let it go, even for a brief time. You’ve got the most important job in the world. We all hope you’ll have a long life ahead to reflect on what you could accomplish. But reflecting doesn’t have to wait until after it’s over.
Focusing on the task at hand is essential, but limiting. Every decision is linked to what came before and what likely will follow. There are no starting or ending points. Everything must be continued, all the time. (That was your complaint against Clinton’s less-than-consequential tenure.) Managers strive for incremental improvements. Leaders plant a flag in the future.
Hand off the nuclear football to Vice President Biden for a few days. We’ve learned to call them “mental health days” — where you don’t know what’s not working, but something is definitely out of whack. That sort of break might give you what Reagan experienced on that operating table in March 1981.
Freed from “the tyranny of the urgent,” your famously deep thoughts will waft away from “what now?” and “what next?” — and toward “what for?” How would you like to be remembered? What would you like to try to change, not a little bit at a time, but all at once?
Would the son of a Kansas woman and a Kenya man like to address racial tensions in Missouri and America? Would the former Harvard Law Review president like to set a policy directive for drones in warfare that the world will follow? Would the Constitutional Law professor like to force Congress to again accept responsibility for declaring America’s wars? Would the father of two young girls like a legacy built around gender equality? Would the former community organizer like to organize some specific aspect of community?
These are questions to be answered first by the man you are, not the position you hold. They can’t be answered from your home office.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs