From re-smoothing rumpled snow to dressing walkways with perfectly imperfect fallen leaves, much goes into creating a soothing — and orderly and secure — rustic mountain retreat for U.S. presidents.
“Everything looks so natural, but it’s kind of perfect,” retired Rear Admiral Michael Giorgione, a former Camp David commanding officer, said in a recent interview.
Released to coincide with 2017 being the 75th anniversary of the establishment of Camp David deep in the woods above Thurmont, Giorgione’s new book, “Inside Camp David: The Private World of the Presidential Retreat,” offers details that could surprise even the most avid Frederick County historians.
In 278 pages, Giorgione weaves palace intrigue, personal reflections from former commanding officers at the camp and histories of the retreat and Thurmont, including a tidbit about how the town was nearly named Blue Mountain City.
The book is billed as “the first-ever insider account” of the camp. Giorgione served as the camp’s commanding officer under both President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush.
The book draws from a journal he kept during his two-year tenure and similar written accounts from commanding officers who came before him. “Bringing 15 other commanding officers’ and their families’ stories into the book as well was very important to me,” Giorgione said.
He completed the book in two months last year with the help of writer Catherine Whitney, inspired in part by a 2016 reunion of former commanding officers.
“That iced it for me right there, when I heard many other COs and their families talking about their rich experience at Camp David,” Giorgione said. “All the great stories.”
“Cedar kids,” as Giorgione calls the children of commanding officers, lead lives that are at once extremely privileged (with presidential playdates a possibility) and sometimes a burden (those playdates with schoolmates could involve extensive security checks).
The average tenure for commanders at Camp David is two to three years. About 200 people make up the crew.
“It’s a very unique community … quite a very small and privileged and fortunate group,” Giorgione said. “We were very fortunate and appreciative to have that experience.”
At Camp David, the small crew is privy to a hidden side of the American presidency, one that most people are curious about but know little of.
Presidents and their families relax for movie nights, float in the pool outside the presidential lodge, Aspen, and embrace the wind whipping their hair on Golf Cart One.
It is also where presidents and other world leaders reflect on the most pressing issues of the day.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the camp twice during World War II.
“There they would talk for hours, seated on rudimentary canvas chairs, clouds of cigar smoke rising above them,” Giorgione writes.
On one trip, the world leaders drove to the Cozy Restaurant in Thurmont. “Churchill announced that he wanted to see what a jukebox looked like,” Giorgione writes. “… He handed the stunned owner some coins for the jukebox and bought a beer. The people of Thurmont still talk about it.”
Establishing a retreat
When Roosevelt first took office, he preferred to spend time in his Hyde Park home and the presidential yacht, USS Potomac.
But the yacht was deemed too risky a retreat for the president during World War II.
On April 22, 1942, after a two-hour-plus drive from D.C., Roosevelt visited the former Works Progress Administration Camp #3, declaring it “my Shangri-La,” and establishing the now infamous presidential retreat.
It was President Harry Truman — who preferred getaways on the USS Williamsburg — who made the decision to keep Camp David as a federal property.
“I have decided because of the historical events and international interest now associated with the Catoctin Recreational Area that this property should be retained by the Federal Government and made a part of the National Park Service of the Department of the Interior,” he wrote to Maryland Gov. Herbert R. O’Connor.
Truman also added steam heat to the presidential lodge, allowing the retreat to be used year-round.
Fourteen presidents have made use of the retreat, from FDR through President Donald Trump.
Since President Dwight D. Eisenhower, presidents have been able to travel to the retreat via a 30-minute helicopter ride from the White House.
“More than one president initially intended to shut the place down as a cost-cutting measure, but in every instance the camp seduced the chief executive or someone on his staff,” Giorgione wrote.
Eisenhower thought it was an unnecessary expense at first, and Attorney General Herbert Brownell went to the camp to complete a Justice Department inspection. Brownell was so taken with the camp that he wrote Eisenhower a “Petition for Executive Clemency” for the camp.
“Petitioner states that she was convicted without a hearing in the White House … and was sentenced to embarrassment, ignominy, and possible transfer or obliteration.”
The camp was kept open.
It’s well-known that Camp David was re-named by Eisenhower to honor his father and grandson — but the book recounts how the name change was spontaneous. The camp’s staff found out the day before Eisenhower was planning a visit and the old wooden entrance sign was quickly installed. “I’m glad they did not touch the paint to find whether it was dry,” Naval Aide William Rigdon wrote.
Keeping ‘The Good
Giorgione’s book also offers an inside view on how commanding officers handled it when things went wrong — when wildlife like a deer or snake found their way inside a cabin, or a fireplace flared up when just the right doors were once opened at just the right time, or the time an over-heated swimming pool created an unnoticed sheen of melted asphalt on the surface, only making itself apparent on President John F. Kennedy’s face after a dip.
Problems big and small at Camp David are treated with equal attention and care.
After President George W. Bush’s first visit, he thought his bed didn’t seem level.
“So we launched a full investigation,” Giorgione wrote. “The staff surveyed the bed, used marbles on the floorboards to check for slope, examined the bedposts, shimmed one or two of them, measured the bed frame with a level, and so on. Finally, I lay down on top of the bed (wearing booties, which we always had on in Aspen and Laurel).”
President George H.W. Bush was known to employ humor in his notes about camp concerns. “Mike — the toilet in the presidential bathroom is not responding to presidential commands,” he once wrote to Commander Mike Berry.
Giorgione gives a glimpse of little-known histories of the facilities at Camp David. The extra-wide door cut into the wall outside Roosevelt’s bedroom, for instance, that was constructed like a drawbridge to help the president escape in his wheelchair in case of a fire. And the camp’s basketball court, named Leatherwood, was refurbished by President George W. Bush at the end of his administration especially for Obama, according to the book.
President Nixon had probably the most hands-on facility changes at Camp David, Giorgione said. He added the hourglass pool at Aspen and built Laurel, an entertainment cabin frequently depicted in the media that’s also so much more. President Ronald Reagan recorded the weekly presidential address in the cabin. During the 2001 peace summit, President Bill Clinton waited inside Laurel as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat tussled to see who could invite the other to enter first. President Barack Obama hosted a G8 summit at the cabin in 2012. Most recently, Trump held a Cabinet meeting in Laurel.
Security measures — in the superficial detail that can be divulged in a book for the general public — of commanding officers are also discussed. Suffice it to say, intruders would be quickly noticed.
There are no lights from nearby homes, no noise from passing cars, not even the drone of a plane passing overhead.
“As times change and technology changes, the camp figures out — with the staff and with the White House Military Office — how to adapt and still protect the privacy, the security and the charm of the retreat. It’s not meant to be a five-star resort, of course,” Giorgione said in an interview. “I’ve got to believe it’s the most exclusive retreat, however, in the world.”
A former naval aide recounted spending 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.”
For all that stays the same at Camp David, the retreat is thick with history.
Giorgione describes it best:
“The long and the short of presidential use of Camp David is that each president has added his own signature to the camp, regardless of the frequency of the visits. In this way, the history of Camp David does not stay in the past but is fully present today. When you’re there, you can almost see Roosevelt smoking on the porch with Churchill. You can imagine George H.W. Bush in the wallyball court slamming the balls across the net. You can picture Eisenhower at his rustic grill with the steaks sizzling, Caroline Kennedy riding her pony Macaroni, and the Clintons talking as they walked down a tree-lined path. Blink and you can hear Reagan’s warm voice coming over the radio as he gave his Saturday address to the nation. Like an archaeological imprint, it’s all still there in the dirt, in the air.”
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