Lincoln, FDR, and the Power of the Well-Timed Vacation

It's the middle of summer, which means two things: all over the country people are going on vacation, and Washington, D.C. is a mess. Might part of the reason be that, while most people recognize the benefits of unplugging, recharging, and renewing in the summer, our politicians spend the season tethered to the same hamster wheel, including endless calls and events begging for money?

The science is in on what most people already intuitively know -- we perform better, we think better, and we make better decisions when we're refreshed and well-rested. To cite just one example, a study published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation are directly comparable to being drunk.

And yet, those who represent us, and make decisions that govern so many aspects of our lives, live as if the complete opposite were true. They fetishize burnout, taking pains to project an image of constant, ceaseless work, and seldom let themselves be shown taking time off or resting -- though if an opponent does take a break, well, then, he or she is relentlessly shamed for it.

It's not just science that shows how dangerously wrongheaded this unrelenting approach is -- history does, as well. Many of our greatest presidents understood the powerful upside of downtime. We know that Lincoln craved the peace, quiet and solitude of the cottage at the Soldiers' Home. For 13 months, during the height of the Civil War, he lived there, often commuting daily back and forth to the White House. In fact, it was at the Soldiers' Home that Lincoln thought about and developed what would become one of his greatest acts: the Emancipation Proclamation.

Another president, FDR, used a timely getaway to summon the creative power needed to crack what seemed like an insurmountable -- but very significant -- dilemma. Doris Kearns Goodwin tells what happened in her book, No Ordinary Time: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.

The time was late 1940. FDR had just come out of the November election victorious. But Britain was struggling. They were keeping the Germans at bay, but, in doing so, running dangerously short of supplies -- and money. Germany, meanwhile, was building capacity, thanks to resources acquired by its march through Europe. The possibility of simply loaning Britain the money was raised inside the White House, but Congress surely would not approve it. "The problem seemed insoluble," writes Goodwin.

Then, suddenly, despite all the pressure on him, President Roosevelt announced that he would be taking a 10-day vacation, sailing around the Caribbean on a navy ship, the USS Tuscaloosa. "The timing of the pleasure trip was profoundly disturbing to those who worried about Britain's survival," writes Goodwin.

On board the president fished, socialized, played poker and watched movies. As the ship sailed through the Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Lucia and Cuba, Navy seaplanes delivered White House mail. One letter was from Eleanor, who was on a trip of her own. "I think of you," she wrote, "sleeping and eating and I hope getting rest from the world."

On the morning of December 9th, another letter arrived, this one from Winston Churchill. Britain could survive "the shattering of our dwellings and the slaughter of our civil population by indiscriminate air attacks," he wrote, but "unless we can establish our ability to feed this Island, to import the munitions of all kinds which we need, we may fall by the way, and the time needed by the U.S. to complete her defensive preparations may not be forthcoming." He concluded:

You may be assured that we shall prove ourselves ready to suffer and sacrifice to the utmost for the Cause, and that we glory in being its champions. The rest we leave in confidence to you and to your people, being sure that ways and means will be found which future generations on both sides of the Atlantic will approve and admire.

Not even those closest to him knew what Roosevelt's response would be: "I didn't know for quite a while what he was thinking about, if anything," Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins later said. "But then -- I began to get the idea that he was refueling, the way he so often does when he seems to be resting and carefree. So I didn't ask him any questions. Then, one evening, he suddenly came out with it -- the whole program. He didn't seem to have any clear idea how it could be done legally. But there wasn't any doubt in his mind that he'd find a way to do it."

First, note the connection between "refueling" and "resting and carefree." And second, note the result of that refueling: what came to be the $50 billion Lend-Lease program. The U.S. would lend arms and supplies to Britain and be paid back, after the war, in kind, instead of with dollars. "How Roosevelt arrived at this ingenious idea, which cut through all the stale debates in Washington without loans and gifts," writes Goodwin, "is not clear." But, as White House speechwriter Robert Sherwood put it, "One can only say that FDR, a creative artist in politics, had put in his time on this cruise evolving the pattern of a masterpiece." And on March 11th, 1941 Roosevelt signed his masterpiece.

Would our politicians today have the wisdom and the confidence to give themselves the best chance to come up with solutions by, as FDR did, getting away, thinking, resting and refueling? They'd be more likely to if we do our part by helping to change the incentives. Politicians should be scorned when they don't take time off, not when they do. After Hillary Clinton stepped down as Secretary of State, she told Gail Collins what was next on her agenda: "I just want to sleep and exercise and travel for fun," Clinton said. "And relax. It sounds so ordinary, but I haven't done it for 20 years. I would like to see whether I can get untired."

I hope she did. And I hope that if she runs in 2016, she doesn't think of getting "untired" as something to be done only between jobs. "I'd just as soon see her -- and other politicians -- retreat," writes Frank Bruni. "Take more time away. Spend more time alone. Trade the speechifying for solitude, which no longer gets anything close to the veneration it's due, not just in politics but across many walks of life."

He continues:

The metabolism of contemporary politics devalues solitude and makes it difficult. The system is nuts. We in the media keep scornful watch over elected leaders' vacation schedules, giving them demerits for too many days on their own, though on their own is a crucial place to be.

The deficits we should be demanding that Washington focuses on are our leaders' deficits: energy, creativity, insight and wisdom. And summer is the perfect time to build up a surplus. I'm happy to see that President Obama will be taking a few weeks vacation in August. Maybe he can reserve some bipartisan bunk beds and take a few Republicans with him. We could certainly use a few masterpieces born of refueling.