Viewpoint

Presidental perks, from Jonas Bros. to bowling

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

The news has been so wretched lately and his hair so much grayer, one wonders 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.

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, Maryland, 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.

Obama, like Bill Clinton and the Bushes, loves the putting green outside the Oval Office redesigned by famous golf course architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. 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.

Some may be surprised to learn 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. But soon, White House chefs usually step in.

Air Force One 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 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 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 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 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.

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