When President Trump announced he’d take a nearly three weeks long vacation at his golf course in New Jersey the commentary came out rapid fire. Most notably an article from the Boston Globe with the headline “Forget scenic traditions — Trump vacations in the land of spray tans.” Now, part of that is political writers scrounging for stories during the dog days of summer, his historically low ratings didn’t help either, but the rest has to do with the exclusive nature of presidential retreats. In one of the most clever retorts, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Honors College at Rutgers-Newark, Brian Murphy dropped some real historic knowledge about presidential vacations on these Jersey-bashing writers.
Vannozzi: Brian Murphy, great to have you with us. So, I have to tell you when I read your article, the mama bear in me came out because only we’re allowed to bash New Jersey, when we’re born and raised here no one else is. And to be fair, it wasn’t just the Boston Globe that got a dig in, other outlets did too. Why do you think they took this opportunity?
Murphy: I think Jersey has got a bit of a target on its back, unfairly, but people love to knock us, and The Sopranos, while I think it’s a great show, The Sopranos really created this popular show that reinforced a bunch of stereotypes. I think people were just piggy-backing on that and then tagging us with our governor and with the president and everything else.
Vannozzi: So, you wrote that presidents have been vacationing for New Jersey for generations, Trump is not the first. Who else has vacationed here?
Murphy: So, we can start at the beginning, right? George Washington had a lunch during the Revolutionary War at the Great Falls in Paterson and that became an inspiration for Alexander Hamilton to think maybe we should put a city there which has become Paterson. But Presidents Buchanan, Pierce, Lincoln — he came to Cape May but wasn’t president yet — Grant, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford Hayes, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Wilson.
Vannozzi: So, these guys have been hanging out at the Jersey Shore long before Snooki and The Situation, like the Boston Globe referenced.
Murphy: For as long as there has been a concept of a vacation, which is a relatively modern thing, so for as long as there has been the idea that presidents should go somewhere else, and presidents were always getting out of Washington, D.C. because in the summer D.C. it’s built on a swamp and in the summer there are mosquitoes and they carry yellow fever and malaria. So Congress didn’t meet in Washington during the summer, and the president wasn’t going to stick around neither. Jefferson use to go to a retreat, everybody thinks of Monticello, but he had another house called Poplar Forest. They all got out of town. So once there were places that were resorts, Long Branch is one of the first ones, as soon as a train can take you to a resort near the seaside, presidents start getting out of town.
Vannozzi: Yes, and you write about the literal swamp that was D.C. during the summertime that presidents would escape so that they didn’t catch these things like malaria from mosquitoes. President Garfield, as a matter of fact, came to New Jersey to get healthy, yes?
Murphy: He brought his wife to New Jersey because she had gotten malaria and a bunch of other nasty things to go with it. She came here to recoup. And then he went back to D.C. to do some work and he was waiting for a train to take him back to Jersey with a bunch of people in his cabinet when he was shot at a train station. He was trying to recoup in D.C. and he wanted to get back to New Jersey and try to make a recovery. His doctors did a lot more damage than the bullet did and he ended up dying there. He didn’t stick around for very long once he got to Jersey. But there was a line, and who knows if he said it or not but it’s apocryphal, that as soon as he got to Jersey and into view of the shoreline, he said ‘Thank God I’m here.’
Vannozzi: Yes, and I can’t disagree with that. I mean we have places like Seven Presidents Park in Long Branch and places in Cape May. A lot of people have been to Congress Hall but don’t know about the history there.
Murphy: Right, and Congress Hall, in fact I had my wedding at Congress Hall, had been a hotel I think that had started in 1816, so people had been going there for that long. And then when President Benjamin Harrison was in office, he stayed there for so long that the first floor that hotel because a summer White House. But there are a whole bunch of other Victorian, big hotels in Cape May. Most of them are gone. Congress Hall stuck around, and a lot of them burned in a fire in the 1870s and then the whole town was rebuilt sort of in this high Victorian style because it all burned at the same time. It was all re-built at the same time according to this particular style. So most of them are gone, right, they’ve either had fires or they closed, but Congress Hall is still around. And you can go visit this place.
Vannozzi: And the whole first floor became sort of a working White House.
Murphy: Yes, you can get there by train, and why not? There are enough other dignitaries who also wanted to be in town and it’s a great place to go.
Vannozzi: As you noted in your article a lot of this just has to do with the fact that these presidential vacations tend to be very exclusive. We think of places in the upper part of the Northeast. Isn’t this country club, this golf club exclusive enough in its own right?
Murphy: Yes, I mean that Boston Globe article knocked the president in saying he’s going to be playing golf, putting within earshot of I-78, fine. If you’ve been to Bedminster, we are not talking about something that feels like it’s just off of the highway. People are paying, reportedly, $300,000 to get a membership at this golf club.
Vannozzi: This is not a view of 78 or the Jersey Turnpike that we’re looking at.
Murphy: There’s like nothing scandalizing or decause about being at the Bedminster golf course, regardless of what your views on the president are and his vacation habits, his travel habits. There’s nothing to be ashamed of about being in Bedminster as a place to vacation, or that it diminishing the presidency in any way about going to this particular spot in Jersey.
Vannozzi: Won’t be the first presidential vacation and not the last. Brian Murphy, thank you so much for coming and then giving us a little bit more insight on that.
Murphy: It’s a pleasure being here thanks a lot.
Vannozzi: Thanks for coming in.