Before Twitter free-for-alls, American presidents rarely found spaces in which to let loose — which is one reason why Camp David is so exceptional.
In his new book, Inside Camp David: The Private World of the Presidential Retreat, rear admiral and former camp commander Michael Giorgione reflects on the 75-year history of the retreat, and how former presidential families like the Obamas, Bushes, and Clintons used it to relax.
“To me, Camp David is more a psychological journey than a physical one,” Lady Bird Johnson once said of the camp (which is isolated on top of a mountain in Thurmont, Maryland), according to the book. “I leave my troubles outside the gate.”
So did the Obamas, although they used the camp rather sparingly (only 39 times) compared to other first families. According to Inside Camp David, then-President Obama didn’t go to the camp as often as Michelle and their two daughters, Sasha and Malia. When Michelle visited she often brought a crew of friends, and once hosted Beyoncé at the camp to celebrate the artist’s birthday.
“Like Bess Truman, Michelle Obama enjoyed bringing female friends for the weekend, along with a chef to prepare healthy meals,” Giorgione writes. “She and her friends would work out pretty intensely — up to three times a day in the gym, with Marines holding the punching bags — then relax by the pool, laughing and talking.”
When President Obama did visit, he loved to play “a hard-fought basketball game” and once “got knocked to the ground in an aggressive scramble,” Giorgione writes, adding that everyone was upset, except for the president.
“There was never another basketball game with the crew, but that was likely due to security’s nervousness, not Obama’s choice,” he adds.
While Giorgione reflects back on other memorable moments of the Obamas’ time at the camp (he interviewed commanders who came before and after his time at the post from 1999-2001), one that stands out the most is the Obamas’ graciousness toward the crew who lived there.
“Bob Reuning noted that the Obamas were so kind, relaxed and laid back that he felt it necessary to counsel the crew never to forget that Obama was president of the United States,” Giorgione writes, fearing that “his congenial attitude might cause us to drop our guard.”
Michelle Obama’s frequent hugs were also noteworthy. A new commander was teasingly warned, “Heads up. She’s a hugger.”
The Clintons were also known for being “warm and gracious,” though they didn’t mingle with the crew as much. “It was just their way,” Giorgione writes. They too often brought guests with them to the camp, and once hosted a screening of Good Will Hunting with a number of the cast members.
When they weren’t entertaining guests, then-president Bill Clinton loved to sing in the camp choir, and according to former chaplain Bob Williams, had a “marvelous voice.”
In addition to fun, they also sought solace at the camp. They visited eight months after Clinton underwent the impeachment process, and Giorgione felt that by the time of their visit, they’d “figured out how to move on, their family intact.”
When George W. Bush and his family arrived he already had fond memories of the camp from the time his father served as president. Giorgione writes that like the Clintons, and later the Obamas, the Bushes were known for their warmth. One Christmas, he recalls Laura Bush visiting the kitchens where the family meal was being prepared and told the staff to leave. “‘I’ve cooked a lot of meals in my life,” she said. “I’ll take over. You go be with your families.”
Beyond their generosity, the Bushes were also known for their competitive spirits.
“George W. Bush liked to leave everyone in the dust on his mountain bike,” Giorgione writes. When commanding officer Bob Reuning went biking with the president, he recalled having to “ride like the devil to catch up.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games. Many presidents used Camp David as a space for diplomacy and historic peace negotiations. After 9/11, it was the place that Bush and his administration went to pray, mourn, and prepare for war.
Bush cried with the rest of the congregation in the camp’s chapel, Giorgione writes. He also referenced some of the chaplain’s remarks during his address to the nation.
“Pray as if it all depends upon God, for it does,” Bush recalls the chaplain saying in his book, Decision Points. “But work as if it all depends upon us, for it does.”
Inside Camp David: The Private World of the Presidential Retreat is on sale now.