It’s been described as “a place that doesn’t exist.” And it’s an apt portrayal; Camp David is purposely hard to find. The intrigue of the place, its mystery, begins with the difficulty of accessing it. The turnoff, which would easily escape the eye of a casual traveler, is a crack in the almost seamless landscape of Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, marked with a small sign that reads camp #3, an anonymous designation tracing back to an old Works Progress Administration site from the 1930s. There is no grand entrance, no stately front gate or barrier on the main road. Even David Eisenhower, for whom it’s named, had a hard time locating it on his drives through the mountains with his wife. Its very anonymity is its best defense against intruders, as there is nothing discernible to give it away—no observable security, nothing at all but the woods and a high fence that’s mostly hidden unless you get up close. It can feel, on a dark winter afternoon, as if the nearest human being is a thousand miles away. But if, by accident or intention, you turn in and proceed a few yards down the path, everything changes. The silent landscape springs to life in the form of some of the most capable and observant military forces known to man. Here, the trees really do have eyes.
Camp David’s official name is Naval Support Facility Thurmont, and it is commanded by a U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps officer—as I was when I served there under Presidents Bush 43 and Clinton as commanding officer, or CO—and staffed by a team of sailors, marines and other military personnel under the White House Military Office (WHMO, pronounced “whammo”). We’re the force on the ground, so to speak, and the story of the camp is very much our story too.
Camp David is functionally invisible, as it’s designed to be. During World War II, the administration went to great lengths to deny the site (then called Shangri‑La) even existed. Such secrecy is understandable in a time of war, but there was another reason for it too: A president needs a small corner of the universe where he can truly be alone with his thoughts and relaxed in his demeanor. Before Reagan took office, Pat Nixon confided to Nancy, “Without Camp David, you’ll go stir crazy.” And most presidents since have agreed.
Today, absolute privacy is the gift Camp David continues to bestow on presidents. Press access is extremely limited, and photography is rarely permitted. Unlike at the White House, where every moment is observed and recorded, at the camp, it is possible to close the door and draw the curtains, shutting out the nation for a precious brief time. It’s a place where presidents can breathe.
INTO THE WOODS
During his first two terms, Roosevelt’s retreat of choice was the presidential yacht, the USS Potomac, nicknamed “the Floating White House.” But the war changed everything. As security officials contemplated the horrifying possibility that the yacht could be sunk by German U‑boats or attacked from the air, they decided that it was just too risky to use. In March 1942, officials from the National Park Service were tasked with looking for a location that could serve as a presidential retreat.
It had to be close to Washington and at a high enough elevation to assure coolness during the summer, due to Roosevelt’s allergies and asthma. Among several proposed locations was a recreational area on public land in the mountains of Maryland, and on April 22, 1942, FDR’s presidential motorcade made the two-and‑a‑half-hour drive from Washington, winding up the mountain road to survey the site. When he first laid eyes on the camp, Roosevelt was delighted. “This is my Shangri‑La,” he announced, referring to the fictional Himalayan paradise in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Roosevelt christened the site the USS Shangri‑La on July 5, 1942, and made his first official visit two weeks later.
Like today, security was the number-one priority. Marines with war dogs patrolled the perimeter, and sentry booths with telephones were located at 100-yard intervals in case of emergency. There was a constant concern that someone would try to breach the camp’s defenses, and everyone was obsessed with achieving absolute quiet at night, presumably so any interlopers could be heard. Lt. Commander William Rigdon wrote that one of his duties “was to spend the night before the president’s arrival in his bedroom, listening for any disturbing noises that we might be able to control. Squirrels were the chief offenders.”
Still, there were scares. FDR liked to take drives along the mountain roads outside camp, and one day he became curious about a private turnoff. He drove down the road to explore, ending up at a caretaker’s cottage. A small woman holding a shotgun rushed out and confronted him. Refusing to believe he was who he said he was, she ominously pointed the shotgun at him. He backed up the car and got the hell out of there.
Over the years, more than one president has intended to shut down the retreat as a cost-cutting measure, but in every instance, the camp seduced the chief executive or someone on his staff. Eisenhower thought it was an unnecessary expense at first, but soon changed his mind. He did object to the name, however, declaring that Shangri‑La was “just a little fancy for a Kansas farm boy.” He renamed it Camp David in honor of his grandson, who would make many visits there, both while his grandfather was in office and after he married President Nixon’s daughter Julie.
Spread out across 200 acres, the facility has the rustic aura of a campground, with about 20 rough-hewn oak cabins painted moss green that include a gym, a chapel, a health clinic, a fire department, barracks and a mess hall. A tour of its winding paths, just wide enough for a golf cart (the president’s is designated Golf Cart One) begins at Aspen, the commander-in-chief’s cabin. First named the Bear’s Den by FDR, it was later renamed Aspen in homage to Mamie Eisenhower’s Colorado home. The lush acreage, appealing to most, disturbed Harry Truman, a product of the flat midwestern plains. Feeling hemmed in by the forest, he instructed his naval aide to have the area cleared. The cutback had the desired effect, and today a president can stand at the back of Aspen and take in the stunning vista of the manicured lawn of Eisenhower’s three-tee golf green and the heated swimming pool added by Nixon.
Beyond Aspen are Birch and Dogwood, cozy but modern cabins located, diplomatically, equidistant from the president’s residence, where world leaders from Leonid Brezhnev to Yasser Arafat have stayed. Farther along the scenic camp road is historic Holly cabin, which still has the original porch where FDR and Churchill sat to plan D‑Day. Inside is a large meeting room with a stone fireplace where the Camp David Accords took place in 1978. (Carter added a pool table and a movie projector, and the delegations watched 58 movies during the 13-day summit.)
Down from Holly is the Laurel cabin, built in 1972 and in many respects the centerpiece of camp life and diplomacy. Hillary Clinton opened up the main room with windows that take advantage of the view, and there is a piano and a beautiful antique sideboard from the 1800s added by Laura Bush. Laurel is the place for large gatherings, such as the big Christmas dinners both Bush families held every year of their terms. Backtrack along the path toward the gate and you come to Hickory Lodge, the recreation center, with a bowling alley Eisenhower built, and the Shangri‑La bar and grill, where a big, frothy mug of beer can be had for two dollars.
FUN AND GAMES
By nature, those who achieve the highest office in the land are competitive types, and, while they’re not all physically high-powered, there has certainly been an emphasis on sports and fitness among modern presidents. George W. Bush liked to leave everyone in the dust on his mountain bike, no matter the weather (if conditions were icy, marines would go out on the trails with blowtorches to clear the paths); H. W.’s favorite game was an intense sport called wallyball, a hybrid of volleyball and squash. Whether it’s jogging, swimming, tennis or golf, most take advantage of the recreational activities on premises. Eisenhower, FDR, Jimmy Carter and the Obama girls all loved to fish. JFK and Jackie loved to shoot skeet, taking turns with the shotgun on the range (Dick Cheney, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and both Bushes loved to shoot, too).
George Baker, a military aide, noted that during the Kennedy administration when there was a physical fitness craze, the marines at the camp got into the spirit, going on 50-mile hikes to show they were in sync with the president. Bobby Kennedy got into the spirit too, once setting out on foot from Washington, DC, toward Camp David. He made it 50 miles. Baker recounted a visit during which Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, Bobby Kennedy, Ethel Kennedy and a few others went for a long hike. When the group returned to the compound, they realized that Douglas was missing. Apparently, the aging justice had gotten sidetracked looking for herbs and mushrooms. When Douglas finally found his way to the entrance, the guards had changed shift and didn’t recognize him. They thought he was a stray mountain man and refused him entrance. Outraged, Douglas stormed off, vowing to walk back to Washington. When he heard what had happened, President Kennedy jumped into a car with a Secret Service agent, tracked Douglas down on the road and persuaded him to return.
In the time before Nixon built the Aspen pool, the presidents used the camp pool. Kennedy liked the water to be at 90 degrees. One day prior to a visit, the crew checked the temperature and found it was elevated to 105 degrees. The heat exchanger had malfunctioned, and it had continued to pump in hot steam. They decided to dump half the pool’s water and refill it with cold water. By the time Kennedy arrived, the temperature had been reduced to 90. Problem solved, right? Not exactly. After Kennedy went swimming, one of the crew received an urgent call from a steward wondering if he had anything that could remove tar from the president’s face. Apparently, the heat had melted some of the asphalt sealing, and there was an undetectable skim floating on the pool. The stewards raced down to clean up the president’s face, and they never told the commanding officer. Neither did the president.
Relaxing was not in Lyndon Johnson’s DNA. But he did take up bowling at Camp David. On his first try, he knocked over seven pins. That only made him obsess about a perfect game, and he was never satisfied until he bowled a strike. A great multitasker, he usually spoke on the phone during a game, and he would occasionally stride over, bowl a couple of frames whether it was his turn or not, then go back to his call. Some of those calls were clearly with recalcitrant congressmen, and on one occasion the president returned to bowling crowing, “Just hook ’em and reel ’em in.”
The bowling alley has always been a popular venue at camp—guests gravitate there. During his 1959 visit, Khrushchev marveled at the automatic pinsetter. And Madeleine Albright got excellent coaching from President Clinton for her first attempts during the 2000 Middle East Peace Summit. Even Richard Nixon, who was not athletic, liked to bowl, which led to some uncomfortable moments for CO John Dettbarn, who was the designated scorekeeper when Nixon and Pat bowled together. “The president wasn’t much of a bowler,” Dettbarn recalled. “Scorekeeping could get complicated.”
The Reagans set a Camp David record that remains to this day—189 visits (for a total of 571 days). With the exception of Margaret Thatcher, who got the nod in 1984, they mostly came alone and rarely invited guests, not even their children. After recovering from the assassination attempt in his first months of office, Ronald Reagan liked to go horseback riding with Nancy on the Saturdays they were there. At the time, the camp had a small stable and corral near the helicopter pad, originally installed by Jackie Kennedy so she could ride with Caroline. National Park Service horses were trailered up to the camp for the first couple’s rides. The president and first lady dressed in riding clothes and high leather riding boots with spurs—they both knew their way around horses. There were two horses specifically set aside for the Reagans, but there were five or six more in the entourage, including one for a Secret Service agent, one for a military aide, and a few for the park police riders. One time a marine asked President Reagan if he ever saw them while riding. He said no, he never did, but he appreciated the fact that they were there. Unknown to almost everyone, including the Reagans, was the rubber-tired armored personnel carrier, nicknamed the Gargoyle, with a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on a remote-controlled turret. During those rides, it would be running and manned with a squad of marines, out of view, but on the job.
When Jimmy Carter took up cross-country skiing on one of his 99 visits to camp, staying close to the president presented a challenge to the Secret Service. The solution was to purchase snowmobiles so the agents could follow behind. They soon came in handy when Carter had a bad spill on an icy stretch and fell on his face. Agents following him hauled the bleeding, embarrassed president onto a snowmobile. (Later, just before leaving the presidency, he had a second fall while out sledding with Rosalynn and broke his collarbone.) Barbara Bush also had an unfortunate encounter with the snowy mountain. In 1991, she was sledding with her husband, grandchildren, and guests Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver when her saucer-shaped sled began spinning out of control on the unusually icy hill. Despite her husband yelling, “Bail out! Bail out!” she clung to her saucer, hit a tree and broke her leg. Fortunately, it was a minor break. As Bush 41 quipped, “No damage to the tree.”
When the crew is invited to join the president at play, it’s not exactly stress free, as marines and sailors experienced when they participated in a basketball game with Barack Obama. When the president got knocked to the floor in the midst of a scramble, everyone was concerned—except the president. There was never another basketball game with the crew, but that was likely due to security’s nervousness, not Obama’s choice. The highlight of Obama’s visits from an activity standpoint was his annual birthday party, which he liked to celebrate at the camp by holding what was dubbed a “campathalon.” CO Russell Rang recalled how he’d bring up to 15 friends, some going back to his early days in Chicago, and they’d engage in a two-day all-out competition. It included a home-run derby (using an automatic pitcher), a football toss, skeet shooting, bowling, pool, darts, and a finale of an intense three‑on‑three basketball competition. The CO was assigned to give the awards to the winners. “Obama won one year I was there,” said Rang. “He had a very big smile when I gave him the award—a competitive guy.”
“Camp David is a far more intimate setting than the White House,” wrote Laura Bush. “It is a place where you can get to know another leader without the crush of a roomful of a hundred or so invited guests. ... A visit to Camp David is more like a visit to someone’s weekend place. And it cements a different friendship than simply having a fancy event amid gleaming silver and glittering chandeliers.” Nearly every president since Roosevelt has brought world leaders to camp for adult sleepovers or meetings over lunch. Some of these are friendly, others chilly, but all allow fascinating personal views. Whether playing horseshoes or driving golf carts, these usually sober leaders let down their guard for a moment, and the result is a revealing glimpse behind the curtain. This is the remarkable dichotomy of the presidential retreat, where tennis and bowling can seamlessly intermingle with high-stakes diplomacy.
Winston Churchill became a close friend and ally of FDR, and he visited Shangri‑La twice during the war. They sat talking and contemplating strategy over highballs and cigars or went fishing together at Hunting Creek, clouds of cigar smoke rising above them. “The cigars created enough of a screen to protect both of them from mosquitoes,” wrote CO William Rigdon. On one visit, the pair drove down to the town of Thurmont at the base of the mountain. When the townspeople spotted them, they poured out onto the road and cheered as Churchill raised his hand and gave the victory sign. Stopping at the Cozy Restaurant, a favorite local establishment, Churchill announced that he wanted to see what a jukebox looked like. Easing his bulky frame out of his seat, he strode inside, handed the stunned owner some coins for the jukebox, and bought a beer. The people of Thurmont still talk about it.
Nikita Khrushchev was uncertain and even suspicious when he received an invitation from President Eisenhower to visit Camp David during his U.S. tour in 1959. In his mind, a camp was a place you put undesirables. But his staff set him straight, and he was charmed by the rustic atmosphere. Khrushchev actually stayed at Aspen with Eisenhower—in remarkably close quarters, given the circumstances. At one point, Khrushchev told Eisenhower that he was fond of American Westerns—a pleasure he and the president shared. Happy to find even the smallest commonality, Eisenhower showed him a list of movies available at the camp, which included High Noon, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Big Country, and the two leaders watched Westerns together. Afterward, Khrushchev would speak of “the spirit of Camp David,” and it briefly looked as though a diplomatic breakthrough was possible.
It wasn’t until June 1973, however, that another Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, accepted a U.S. president’s invitation; Nixon invited Brezhnev to a weeklong summit in the White House and then a visit to Camp David after the meetings. “Diplomacy is not always an easy art,” Nixon wrote of the occasion in his memoir, and Brezhnev’s visit to Camp David was literally a bumpy ride. Trying to court the Soviet leader, Nixon presented him with a gift—a dark blue 1973 Lincoln Continental donated by the Ford Motor Company. Delighted, Brezhnev suggested they try out the vehicle. As Nixon recounted, “He got behind the wheel and motioned me into the passenger seat. The head of my Secret Service detail went pale as I climbed in and we took off down one of the narrow roads that run around the perimeter of Camp David. ... At one point there is a very steep slope with a sign at the top reading, ‘Slow, dangerous curve.’ … Brezhnev was driving more than 50 miles an hour as we approached the slope. I reached over and said, ‘Slow down, slow down,’ but he paid no attention.” At the bottom, brakes squealing, Brezhnev made the turn, and Nixon, hanging on for dear life, said, “You are an excellent driver. I would never have been able to make that turn at the speed at which we were traveling.”
The first major summit, and the one that would decisively put Camp David on the diplomatic map, occurred in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter brought together Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for 13 days in an effort to resolve the Middle East conflict, Carter’s most cherished goal since the beginning of his administration. A telling moment occurred before the first meeting on day one. The president and first lady met Sadat and Begin outside Aspen, and the three leaders greeted one another at the cabin’s threshold. The Carters then proceeded inside. Begin and Sadat, though, hesitated at the door. Who should enter next? Neither moved. An awkward jostling threatened to ensue. Both men laugh-ed, and Sadat insisted that Begin go first. It was an apparent moment of goodwill that the president and Rosalynn observed through a window. Carter later decoded it for his wife: Prime Minister Begin would never have gone ahead of Sadat. Proper protocol dictated the order: president above prime minister. By the end of the second day, the negotiations had descended into bitter acrimony.
In 1990, soon after Gorbachev became president of the Soviet Union—the first to hold this position—President Bush invited him to Camp David. Mike Berry, the CO at the time, hosted several setup visits by the White House advance team, the USSR advance team, the KGB, the USSR communications team and the White House chefs. All the regular phones were taken out of the cabins and the Soviets installed their own. While the camp phones were high-tech and encrypted, the Soviet phones looked like holdovers from the 1950s—big, black, rotary-dial contraptions. The camp transport garage was cleared for Soviet communications, and when they started broadcasting to Moscow, they jacked the power so high that it interfered with the American communications. “We were hearing Russian,” Berry said. “We had to ask them to tone it down.”
Later, Bush and Gorbachev toured the camp, their ties off and relaxed. When they came to the horseshoe pit, one of Bush’s favorite spots, Gorbachev said he’d never played the game, so Bush asked him if he’d like to. The Soviet leader got a ringer on his first shot, impressing everyone, including himself. Bush had the horseshoe mounted by a camp Seabee and then presented it to Gorbachev at dinner that night.
One afternoon during the July 2000 visit of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, our fire department, manned by military service members trained in structural and aircraft firefighting, responded to a fire alarm in the Rosebud cabin. Our command duty officer also responded, as is the protocol, and was concerned when she observed the Palestinians nervously flushing papers down the toilets and throwing them into the lit fireplace. She sensed that maybe they felt they were being attacked and were concerned about their private and possibly classified papers falling into the wrong hands. Already in a delicate and sensitive situation just by coming to Camp David to negotiate the elusive peace agreement with President Clinton, the Palestinians might have seen the arrival of the fire crew and duty officer as an aggressive act by the United States. It certainly wasn’t, but I was concerned enough to hurry over myself. I assured the nervous Palestinians that our diligent and well-trained fire department was responding only to the fire alarm, which was apparently set off by the lit fireplace or by the hookah they were using in residence.
Another issue on that visit was renegade golf-cart driving. I assumed that most guests were driving golf carts for the first time, but I wasn’t fully prepared for some of the cultural differences in how people relate to their infrastructure. That is, our roads weren’t always the preferred path of conveyance, and our nicely manicured lawns, flowers and bushes were frequently leveled and torn up with screeching and turning tires.
Tony Blair’s third camp visit, in March 2003, was a sober meeting to discuss the progress of the Iraq war. A press conference was planned in the hangar. When Blair came off the helicopter, he asked CO Mike O’Connor, “Do you have anyone on your staff who can press trousers?” “Of course,” O’Connor replied. He found a crewman who knew how to iron and sent him to Birch with an iron and an ironing board. He knocked on the door, and Blair opened it and welcomed him in. While the crewman set up his board, Blair took off his pants right there and then sat in a chair in his boxer shorts, chatting while his pants were ironed.
replaced Boris Yeltsin in 2000. In spite of Putin’s opposition to the war in Iraq, Bush invited him to Camp David in September 2003. Bush was at the camp to meet Putin when he arrived in a convoy of two helicopters accompanied by a large entourage. A caravan of 15 golf carts made its way to the residence. Soon after, CO Bob McLean received a call from the steward. President Putin had forgotten his bedroom slippers. One of the crew was sent to Walmart to purchase a new pair. Later, Bush would describe a telling clue to Putin’s style. Relating how the Russian sniffed derisively upon meeting Barney, the Bushes’ Scottish terrier, and later introduced Bush to his real dog, a Russian Labrador, Bush said, “I learned a lot about Putin then. ‘My dog is bigger than your dog.’”
President Bush 43 thought he could work with Vladimir Putin, who had
On September 11, 2001, Vice President Cheney arrived by helicopter, and moments before it landed, a four-point buck walked across the landing zone, giving everyone a chill. (Only recently has it been revealed that Camp David was Cheney’s secure location.) President Bush arrived the following Friday, accompanied by Laura and a large team of advisers, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and many generals. It was a painful and somber weekend. Saturday evening before dinner at Laurel, John Ashcroft sat at the piano playing hymns as the group gathered around and sang. He then accompanied Condi Rice as she sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE
When I was at Camp David, I was often struck by the isolation of the president, even when he was with his wife and children and friends; he always seemed to be standing apart. When I spoke to the other commanders, they told me how certain presidents visibly brought the burdens of the office to camp to contemplate them on their own. Many presidents gravitate toward the place during times of personal crisis. In 1998, Clinton played golf there while articles of impeachment were being drawn up in Washington. Carter sequestered himself at camp alone for weeks in 1979 and emerged with the infamous “malaise” speech. And George H. W. Bush agonized in the woods over his decision to launch the Gulf War.
By the time Watergate consumed Nixon’s presidency, Camp David had taken on the aura of a presidential exile. Nixon often retreated there alone or surrounded by close family members. In April 1973, more than a year before the end, he dealt the fatal blow to aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman not in the White House, but at Camp David. First, Nixon summoned Haldeman to Aspen. The president shook his hand, which, according to Haldeman, he had never done before, and asked him to step outside and look at the fresh tulips blooming. Nixon described how, as he’d said his prayers the previous evening, he’d hoped he wouldn’t wake up. Yet he had—and now he faced the terrible duty of asking for Haldeman’s resignation. He repeated the process with Ehrlichman, again relating his prayerful wish of the previous night, and then he started to cry. Later, as Haldeman and Ehrlichman boarded a helicopter at Camp David for the last time, Nixon saw them off. It felt like the end, but the end would drag on for the next year. On August 8, 1974, before his resignation was official, the staff was told to pack up some items from Aspen that Nixon wanted, including a dozen Camp David highball glasses.
Despite the overwhelming effort of being president, you rarely hear any of them talk about being exhausted, yet it’s observable in the heaviness of their shoulders, the pouches under their eyes and the graying at their temples. Still, there are some days, perhaps on a Friday afternoon, when the president strides across the South Lawn, a little lighter in his step, boards Marine One, and lifts off, leaving the noise behind. Rising in a deliberate sweep above the city with its cluttered highways and dense neighborhoods, the helicopter heads north into a quieter landscape of small towns, two-lane roads and mountain parks; half an hour later it comes down through the trees and gently lands in a different world. Ronald Reagan expressed it well: “As president, the days I hated most were those of nonstop meetings, one after another, with no time in between to collect my thoughts. The days I liked best were those Fridays when I could break away a little early, about three or three thirty, and take off for Camp David.”