Op-Ed

Even in bad times, presidents enjoy perks of office

CAMP DAVID: A favorite presidential perk is the use of Camp David, where President Carter once hosted Prime Minister Begin of Israel and President Sadat of Egypt.
CAMP DAVID: A favorite presidential perk is the use of Camp David, where President Carter once hosted Prime Minister Begin of Israel and President Sadat of Egypt.

With President Obama giddily professing his love for Meryl Streep as he fastened the Medal of Freedom around the famous actress’ neck, we wondered what other perks of office this president enjoys.

The news has been so wretched lately and his hair so much grayer, it’s hard not to wonder how anybody could enjoy the high-pressure White House fishbowl existence for a day, let alone eight years.

But having covered and interviewed every president since Richard Nixon, I was surprised to find they all had moments of pure joy in the White House (not counting pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey — each one who had to do it hated that chore).

Camp David is, without doubt, highest on the list of cool things accessible to the chief executive. George H.W. Bush didn’t think for a moment before declaring Camp David the best perk of all. Set in the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont, Md., and named for President Eisenhower’s grandson, the retreat is only 62 miles from Washington D.C. — a short helicopter ride.

Secured by Navy and Marine personnel, Camp David provides privacy and a rustic chance to unwind, from golf to hiking. Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has used — and loved — Camp David, originally named Shangri-La by Roosevelt. And every ex-president rhapsodizes nostalgically about its loss.

Although the compound is mostly for relaxation, presidents have hosted a long list of visitors there, from Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher. Jimmy Carter used it for the famous — and extremely tense — peace talks between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Obama hosted the G8 economic summit there in 2012, attended by then-Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev after Putin spurned the invitation. However, Putin and George W. Bush met there in 2003.

Obama, like President Clinton and the Bushes, loves the putting green outside the Oval Office redesigned by famous golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. But the truth is the president can play any course in the world. And ever since Harry Truman, the White House has had its own bowling alley. There is also a swimming pool, tennis court, jogging track and horseshoe pit.

Obama is a particular fan of the basketball court, which he had installed on the tennis court so both games can be played. He has played basketball with college championship teams and veterans with Wounded Warriors.

Some may be surprised to know that the president’s family pays for their own food fixed in their private kitchen (and their dry cleaning). Most first ladies start out declaring they will do a lot of cooking to make sure the food is nutritious and the president’s waistline doesn’t expand, even with Michelle Obama’s famous shrimp linguini. But soon, White House chefs usually step in. The president and his family can get anything they want to eat (not late-night ice cream because Obama doesn’t like it, but lots of his favorite black forest berry iced tea).

Air Force One (technically any plane the president is flying on, but usually a Boeing 747-200B series) is not as big as the Harrison Ford sound stage supposed to represent the plane. Obama’s plane has 4,000 square feet on three levels and a luxurious suite for him with all the comforts of home. It resists electromagnetic pulses and can fly, through midair refueling, anywhere in the world. Ex-presidents pine for it for months after leaving office.

Presidents who love parties can invite any celebrity they fancy, and most usually attend. Barbra Streisand was a frequent visitor during the Clinton years. Stevie Wonder, who also just received the Medal of Freedom, has entertained the Obamas, who once invited the Jonas Brothers to perform for their daughters.

Obama still struggles with his desire for a cigar and chews Nicorette gum (famously offending the Chinese on a recent visit) but even without a smoke, he enjoys the view from the Truman Balcony. And he doesn’t have to put up a Christmas tree — White House elves decorate the entire house over one weekend.

Another perk all modern presidents have loved is the White House theater, with its popcorn, plush recliner seating and access to any film desired, from the very old to those not yet released. One call to the Motion Picture Association and Meryl Streep’s latest musical, slated for Christmas, is Obama’s for the watching.

Ann McFeatters is an opinion columnist for Tribune News Service.

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