Beware the Down Time of August
Posted on August 13, 2008
(This originally appeared in The Politico)
August can often be the cruelest of months. Just read Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” to get a sense of the series of misplays, miscalculations and miscommunications that sparked the first World War all in the merry month of August.
August is supposed to be a month to vacation. But it can also be a month of mayhem.
On Aug. 2, 1990, I was enjoying my first August break as a congressional staffer, working for House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.). I had started working for Michel in September 1989, so I had spent nearly a year looking forward to the down time promised by those Capitol Hill veterans who looked fondly on the slow days of August. Saddam Hussein had different plans. He sent 100,000 troops and 700 tanks into Kuwait with a plan to make it a part of Iraq.
I learned a valuable lesson that day. Beware the false promise of a slow August! It can often be smashed by one of three things: An international crisis, a sex scandal or a weather emergency. And every four years, August is interrupted by the Olympics and the presidential nominating conventions.
This year, we have had an almost perfect storm. A sex scandal revealed (John Edwards), an international crisis (Russia invades Georgia), the drama of the Olympics and the promise of the political conventions.
For the leading presidential campaigns, August is no time to take a break. While John McCain has learned that lesson, the Obama campaign decided to take time off, with the Democratic nominee escaping to Hawaii for some rest and relaxation. That might have turned out to be a blunder for the junior senator from Illinois.
Obama should have known something bad would happen in August. Let’s review some of the history. In 1990, Hussein invaded Kuwait.
The next year, in August 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.
In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew hit Florida right after Hurricane (Pat) Buchanan destroyed the Bush presidency in Houston.
In August 1997, Princess Diana died (both an international crisis and a sex scandal).
In August 1998, after Al Qaeda bombed our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, President Bill Clinton admitted he did have an “improper” relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
In August 2004, New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey reveals that he is gay, and Hurricane Charley hits Florida, causing widespread ruin.
And in August 2005, it was Hurricane Katrina.
Washington, like the rest of the country, tries to take August off. The Capitol building is usually empty. Traffic is light, unless you are going over the Bay Bridge. The stores are deserted. Finding parking is no problem. Half the staff is on vacation while the other half is thinking about going on vacation. So work is not on the top of the agenda in our nation’s capital during the dog days of August. Play usually is.
But that “vacation” mindset can be slow to respond in a crisis. That became all too clear in 2005 as the Bush administration responded slowly and inadequately to Hurricane Katrina. The A-team was not on their A-game, and the result was a public relations disaster for the Bush team and for Republicans in general.
Barack Obama may have learned that lesson the hard way. Vacationing in Hawaii might seem like a good idea in the middle of August, but it comes at a price when you are running for president. Nothing like a Russian invasion of Georgia to ruin your golf game.
It is a natural response for Washington insiders to want to hold on to their vacation plans at all costs. The draw of the family, the desires of the spouse and the desperate need for downtime all contribute to a sense of entitlement. But as we are all learning again this year, beware the false promise of a slow August. This is an unusually good month for a crisis, be it a sex scandal, an unexpected war or a bad weather event. Just ask Barbara Tuchman. Or Barack Obama.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm, and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.