WACO, Texas -- President Bush is getting the kind of break most Americans can only dream of -- 33 days away from the office, loaded with vacation time.
The president departed yesterday for his longest stretch away from the White House, arriving at his Crawford ranch in the evening for five weeks of clearing brush, visiting with family and friends, and tending to some outside-the-Beltway politics. By historical standards, it is the longest presidential retreat in at least 36 years.
The August getaway is Bush's 49th trip to his cherished ranch since taking office and the 319th day that Bush has spent, entirely or partially, in Crawford -- nearly 20 percent of his presidency to date, according to Mark Knoller, a CBS Radio reporter known for keeping better records of the president's travel than the White House itself. Weekends at Camp David or at his parents' compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, bump up the proportion of Bush's time away from Washington even further.
Bush's long vacations are more than a curiosity: They play into diametrically opposite arguments about this leadership style. To critics and late-night comics, they symbolize a lackadaisical approach to the world's most important day job, an impression bolstered by Bush's two-hour midday exercise sessions and his disinclination to work nights or weekends. The more vociferous among Bush's foes have noted that he spent a month at the ranch shortly before the 9/11 attacks, when critics assert he should have been more attentive to warning signs.
To Bush and his advisers, that criticism fundamentally misunderstands his Texas sojourns. Those who think he does not remain in command, aides say, do not understand the modern presidency or Bush's own work habits. At the ranch, White House officials say, Bush continues to receive daily national security briefings, sign documents, hold teleconferences with aides and military commanders, and even meet with foreign leaders. And from the president's point of view, the long Texas stints are the best way to clear his mind and reconnect with everyday America.
''I'm looking forward to getting down there and just kind of settling in," Bush told reporters from Texas newspapers during a Monday interview at the White House.
Just as Bush has made these August trips a regular feature of his presidency, so, too, have Democrats made a tradition of needling him about them. This year, opposition politicians are tying his departure from Washington to the CIA leak case that has swept up his top adviser, Karl Rove.
Until now, probably no modern president was a more famous vacationer than Ronald Reagan. According to an Associated Press count, Reagan spent all or part of 335 days at his Santa Barbara ranch over his eight-year presidency -- a total that Bush will surpass this month in Crawford with 3 1/2 years left in his second term.