Reading Into Leaders' Vacation Spots

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Matt Cardy / Getty;Darren Staples / Reuters

British Conservative Leader David Cameron, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown begin their summer vacations in different parts of the U.K.

His party has been trounced in recent by-elections, and voters blame him for the country's sputtering economy. So as Gordon Brown and his family spend their summer vacation at a beachside town on England's east coast this week, you might understand why Britain's Prime Minister hasn't ventured further. Amid whispers that colleagues are plotting to replace him, staying within earshot of Westminster (and taking along his Downing Street staff) is a good idea. And for the price of an ice cream, or the hire of a deck chair in the Suffolk resort of Southwold, he might even claim he's giving back to Britain's beleaguered businesses.

In choosing to vacation at home, Brown's in good company. His predecessor Tony Blair drew jeers from British newspapers for his lavish holidays abroad, but many British politicians are sticking closer to home this summer. Finance Minister Alistair Darling has chosen an island off Scotland's northwest coast for his vacation, while Conservative Party leader David Cameron has hit the beach in Cornwall, southwest England (though he is fitting in a second holiday in Turkey in a few weeks).

One of the few politicians to flaunt his decision to reject Britain for foreign shores is Boris Johnson — but then the disarmingly frank Conservative who became London's mayor in May doesn't have to face voters again for four years. "I say stuff Skegness," Johnson wrote in his column in The Daily Telegraph last week, scorning the seaside town in England's east. "I say bugger Bognor," he added, knocking another in the south. "I am going to take a holiday abroad, and in my view it would be absurd, hypocritical and frankly inhumane to do anything else."

Johnson (half) jokes, but in defending his right to vacation abroad he also recognizes an unquestionable fact of modern politics: where a leader chooses to holiday is invariably loaded with meaning. It's the reason President Bill Clinton headed for the Wyoming mountains for a vacation in 1996 after his pollster told him his preferred spot, Martha's Vineyard, was seen by swing voters as too snooty. It explains why, in 2003, when an Italian tourism official likened Germans to "stereotyped blonds with hyper-nationalist pride ... who noisily invade our beaches", Germany's then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder nixed a vacation in Italy in favor of two weeks in Hanover. (That spat's long over: Schröder's successor Angela Merkel is rumored to be heading for an Italian vacazione this summer.)

It also has a lot to do with why Brown opted for the beach houses and tearooms of Southwold. When the economy you've spent more than a decade running starts to tank, voters probably won't appreciate it if you head off to Greece or the Caribbean. A week in unglamorous Southwold also fits well with the slight air of austerity that Brown has used to mark a break with his flashier former boss and rival Blair, famous for his breaks in aging pop star Cliff Richard's Barbados house and Bee Gee Robin Gibb's Florida mansion. Britain is the "best place in the world to have a holiday," said Brown last summer. This from a man who was a regular visitor to Cape Cod until he became Prime Minister.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, however, has no qualms with vacationing in the U.S.: he famously flipped burgers with President Bush at the Commander in Chief's oceanfront retreat in Kennebunkport, Maine last summer (Sarkozy didn't stay with Bush but based himself in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire). And what of Sarko's "buddy," the Democratic nominee Barack Obama? He's going to spend a week in his native Hawaii come mid-August, though is still planning to hold a fund raiser during the trip. But at least Obama will have some downtime: his Republican rival John McCain hasn't even announced whether he's going to take any vacation.

Even the most irascible voter recognizes that their leaders need a break from time to time. So why should we care where our leaders vacation? "We assume we're much more rational than we are, that we look at a politician and a party and we assess their policies and calculate [their impact] for us," says Rodney Barker, head of the Government department at the London School of Economics. "But we also look at politicians and ask: 'are they our sort of person?'" And that, says Catherine Needham, a lecturer in politics at Queen Mary, part of the University of London, includes "looking at their holiday destinations."

Key to getting away with a getaway: politicians should appear slightly superior to their target voters, says Barker, but not remote or filthy rich. "You mustn't be too ordinary," he says. "Go to Southwold, but don't queue for fish and chips like everyone else. That cultivation of distance and similarity at the same time, that's the difficult trick." And above all, don't have too much fun. According to a recent survey for British tour operator Thomas Cook, two-thirds of Britons feel jealous about other people's holidays. Taking a break from politics is one thing, says Barker, "so long as [politicians] don't seem to be enjoying themselves too much." For an embattled Brown, there seems little danger of that.