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Camp David is supreme getaway

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- When summer sunlight hits, the museum-like White House can seem more confining than ever.

So with temperatures high, President Bush is continuing a routine that has become a notable feature of his presidency: the weekend getaway to Camp David.

Today, Bush is departing for his 124th visit as president to the secluded compound in the Catoctin Mountains. Since his inauguration, he has spent all or part of 386 days at Camp David, according to records kept by Mark Knoller of CBS News in Washington, considered an authoritative source on such statistics. Only President Ronald Reagan spent more days there.

Bush often boards Marine One not long after lunch for a 20-minute chopper flight to the Maryland retreat that he has shaped to reflect his tastes, although today, at the end of a sluggish holiday week, he is scheduled to leave in the morning. He typically returns on Sunday afternoon, after prayers in a chapel on the grounds.

"When you are at the White House, you are kind of a captive to the environment you are in," said Andrew H. Card Jr., Bush's former chief of staff, a guest at the complex under three presidents. "At Camp David, you can have much more spontaneity."

Bush is the 12th chief executive to have Camp David available for his use, and seven decades of presidential visits have acclimated residents of nearby Thurmont - roughly halfway between Frederick and Gettysburg, Pa. - to the routine.

"It's definitely not a pain in the rear to anybody," said Jerry Freeze, 71, owner of the Cozy Inn and restaurant, which has catered to crowds flocking to events such as the 13-day summit in September 1978 that resulted in the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt.

Typical visits, however, don't attract the news media and barely register with local businesses and homeowners. So while Thurmont takes pride in having the president nearby, residents mostly go about their days untroubled.

Often, the only evidence of a Bush arrival is the percussive thump of a helicopter landing on the mountainside, said Teresa Kath, owner of Whimiscal Place, a gift shop on Main Street. Tourists at her store are sometimes frustrated that security measures prevent them from catching a glimpse of the rustic lodges.

"It's out of view, out of mind," Freeze said.

'Chance to recreate'

Part of the appeal of Camp David lies in its outdoorsy amenities, according to those who have been there, making it attractive to a vigorous president such as Bush, an avid cyclist who, until a few years ago, jogged at an aggressive sub-eight-minute-mile pace.

"As the president says, you get a chance to recreate," Card said. The camp includes a well-equipped gym, a rock-climbing wall, a batting cage, a pitch-and-putt golf course, a swimming pool and a bowling alley. And now, biking trails, which Bush had installed.

"It's a great legacy to whoever follows him," Card said.

For Bush, the terrain is familiar and comfortable.

His visits date back to the 1980s and his father's vice presidency under Reagan. His sister, Doro Bush Koch, held her 1992 wedding ceremony there.

Bush has used the camp to prepare for State of the Union addresses and to give pep talks to congressional Republicans.

He has also played host to foreign guests there, perhaps more so than any other president.

In April, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shared a lunch of cheeseburgers and ice cream with Bush, who was attempting to build the same sort of relationship he had with Abe's predecessor, the Elvis-loving Junichiro Koizumi.

Bush views Camp David - as well as his ranch in Texas - as a "tool of the presidency" to reward allies and supporters, said Kenneth T. Walsh, author of From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats.

"He and his staff have said and told me that they consider an invitation to the ranch and Camp David as the biggest perquisite that the president can offer," said Walsh, chief White House correspondent for U.S. News and World Report. "[They] can get people there, world leaders, and deal with them one on one. ... He feels he is a charming politician who can draw people into his own orbit."

When President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil went there in March, it marked the 12th time Bush had played host to a foreign head of state there, according to Knoller's statistics. The visit likely set a record, eclipsing that of President Richard M. Nixon, according to W. Dale Nelson, a longtime Associated Press newsman and author of The President Is at Camp David.

Bush's most recent meeting with a major head of state took place in an even more exclusive location. With tensions between Russia and the U.S. on the rise, Bush invited Vladimir V. Putin to visit the president and his father this week at the coastal family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Because of its seclusion, Camp David offers an oasis for presidents that is less restrictive than the tightly controlled setting of the White House.

The compound is surrounded by a secure perimeter deep in the woods of Catoctin Mountain Park. Roads leading there are often shut down when the president is visiting. Motorists on Park Central Road, which winds up the mountain near Thurmont, will find no direct evidence of Camp David. They will eventually see a sign - white letters on black - that says "Camp #3," along with various warnings: "Stop." "Restricted area." "Do not enter."

In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush convened his Cabinet at the compound to plan the U.S. response. After several days of meetings interspersed by solitude, Bush returned to Washington and informed aides that he had decided to invade Afghanistan.

Records show that Bush has invited longtime family friends and campaign donors, as well as high-level White House aides, to join him at the camp. They have included current and former advisers such as Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, Dan Bartlett and Harriet Miers. Families of presidential aides are also invited on occasion.

"The president realizes there is a lot of stress and strain for staff working in the White House," said White House spokesman Scott M. Stanzel.

Presidents, foreign visitors and friends have been coming to the site since 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, under doctor's orders to find a vacation destination cooler than Washington, selected the location.

After telling his staff he wanted a spot at least 1,500 feet in elevation and reasonably close to the capital, Roosevelt selected Camp #3 or Hi-Catoctin, a spot of Maryland state parkland that had been set aside during the Depression for a youth summer camp. Roosevelt christened it Shangri-La, borrowing the name from Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel by James Hilton.

It was given its current name by Dwight D. Eisenhower, in honor of his grandson. Eisenhower added three small golf holes to the property, and expected that one of his successors would call it something else. None has, though other presidents have overseen renovations to make the facility more comfortable.

Reagan holds record

Some presidents have eschewed the solitude of Camp David, but others have been frequent visitors. Reagan appears to hold a record, making 186 visits and spending all or part of 517 days there, Knoller said. Bush is not on pace to break that mark.

For Bush, a trip to Camp David is usually a warm-weather ritual. A Texan, he doesn't like the cold, and wintry conditions can cause problems getting into the Catoctins, along the eastern fringe of the Appalachians. When a snow squall grounded Marine One on March 16, Bush traveled by motorcade. One vehicle, an SUV carrying two Secret Service agents, skidded across a slick highway and collided with another car. There were no injuries.

But Camp David is not quite the top getaway destination for Bush. That would be his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he has spent all or part of 416 days since the start of his presidency, according to the White House - roughly a month more than at Camp David.

"Camp David is a convenient respite because it is nearby," said Card. "But if he had his druthers, he'd be heading down to the ranch."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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