When I decided to write WILDFIRE RUN, originally titled ESCAPE FROM CAMP DAVID, I didn’t realize quite how difficult it would be to find information about presidential retreat. While my book is fiction, I wanted enough accurate details to give readers a believable idea of the setting.
The basics about Camp David can be found in numerous sources. The Presidential retreat was first used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II when it was deemed too dangerous to allow him to pursue one of his favorite pastimes, yachting. Several sites were considered, and a former summer camp in the Catoctin Mountains was chosen. It was designated as a Navy base, guarded by Marines. FDR named the place Shangri-La, but Dwight Eisenhower later changed the name to Camp David, after his grandson, David. To see a few more pictures, click on this link to my website: deegarretson.com
One of the best sources on the retreat is the book THE PRESIDENT IS AT CAMP DAVID by W. Dale Nelson, a reporter for the Associated Press. Other ways to find out little details of history outside the headlines comes from the memoirs and biographies of people who have been there.
1. Most details show the more human side of the Presidents and First Ladies, but one incident in particular could have been part of a plot of a thriller novel. President Jimmy Carter arranged for a summit meeting to be held at Camp David to work on some solution to the conflicts in the Middle East. Tensions ran very high between the Arab and Israeli attendees. After several days of intense negotiations which seemed to be leading nowhere, President Carter supposedly called his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski at 4:15 in the morning because he was worried the Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, might have been assassinated by some of the group accompanying him. Carter had gone to visit Sadat as his cabin at ten o’clock, only to be told Sadat was asleep, even though all the lights were on. Sadat was fine and the resulting agreement made Camp David known around the world. (Nelson)
Anwar Sadat was assassinated in Egypt three years later by some of the Egyptian military who were opposed to peace with Israel.
2. Franklin Delano Roosevelt enjoyed Camp David (named Camp Shangri-La then) a great deal, even though at that time, living conditions were still somewhat primitive. Many of the cabins were unheated and without running water. Because FDR was confined to a wheelchair much of the time, he had a great fear of being trapped in a fire. A section of the wall of the bedroom he slept in was adapted so that it could be opened and turned into a ramp from the bedroom to the outside. (Nelson)
3. Many world leaders have visited Camp David, some enjoying it more than others. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev came to Camp David to meet with President Richard Nixon. Brezhnev collected luxury cars, and an American firm decided to give him a Lincoln Continental. Nixon presented it to him at Camp David. According to Nixon, Brezhnev got in the car and motioned Nixon in the passenger seat. Nixon complied, much to the distress of the Secret Service, and Brezhnev sped off around the narrow winding roads at Camp David, Nixon pleading for him to slow down on some of the more treacherous ones. Brezhnev didn’t listen, afterwards praising the car for its ability to hold the road. (Whitcomb)
4. Since Presidents don’t normally drive themselves while in office, some have taken advantage of the ability to get behind the wheel at Camp David, narrow roads and all. In Hillary Clinton’s memoirs, she talks about President Clinton deciding Camp David would be the perfect spot to teach daughter Chelsea to drive. He borrowed one of the cars in the Secret Service fleet and Mrs. Clinton writes, “Outside of golf carts, the Secret Service never let Bill drive himself around, which was a good thing. It’s not hat my husband isn’t mechanically inclined, it’s just that he has so much information running round his head at any given moment that he doesn’t always notice where he was going.” Chelsea and President Clinton survived the experience, but Mrs. Clinton doesn’t refer to any more driving lessons. (Clinton)
Barark Obama reports that he does drive a golf cart around Camp David, and it’s called Golf Cart One.
5. Not even golf carts are completely safe. Israeli leader Menachem Begin got bumped by one driven by eleven-year-old Mika Brzezinski, the daughter of President Carter’s National Security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. In her memoirs, Mika writes that she asked Amy Carter if she could drive a golf cart, even though she didn’t know how. Amy turned over the wheel and Mika managed to bump into Begin’s shins as he was standing next to Anwar Sadat. (Brzezinski)
6. While no reports of Presidents being in car accidents at Camp David have been reported, Presidents have injured themselves there. Jimmy Carter suffered three separate injuries requiring the attention of the White House doctor. Once from falling off a bicycle, and twice from cross country skiing, breaking his collar bone in one particularly bad fall. (Carter)
7. Even one First Lady suffered an injury there, from sledding of all things. Barbara Bush writes in her memoir that one particularly snowy weekend, most people there greatly enjoyed the sledding one day, and the next day, she hurried out to be one of the first down, taking off on a saucer sled. She didn’t realize that because there had been a thaw and a refreeze during the night, the slope was much icier than it had been the day before. The saucer began spinning around and around, picking up speed and she writes that President Bush was yelling “Bail out! Bail out!” but she didn’t. She hit a tree, fracturing her fibula. (Bush)
8. Over the years there have been many outdoor activities available at Camp David, including archery, horseback riding, hiking, skeet shooting and horseshoes. A new swimming pool was built during the administration of Richard Nixon. Nixon wanted the new pool close to the Presidential lodge. No one told him that the cost would be very high to place a pool at that site, because it was directly over the bomb shelter, whose ceiling had to be reinforced to support the weight of the water. (Nelson)
9. Presidents and their families have treasured the informality of the place and they usually dress much more informally at Camp David, sometimes perhaps a bit too informally. President George H.W. Bush’s daughter Dorothy held her wedding there, so she could have a quiet wedding without any media attention. According to Barbara Bush in her memoirs, President Bush waited until the morning of the ceremony to ask what he should wear. When told he should wear a blue suit, he confessed he didn’t bring one, assuming the wedding would be casual. Mrs. Bush writes, “He did come up with a blue blazer, a white shirt, and some 20-year-old white summer pants with a thin blue stripe which the boys call his ‘New York Yankee” pants.” (Bush)
10. White House dogs have generally also loved the freedom of Camp David. Most reportedly learn to love the helicopter ride there, and once they arrive, spend their time chasing squirrels. The President’s dog, no matter how small, always gets the top dog billing and privileges. Vice President Dick Cheney writes of how his own dog, Dave, a yellow Labrador, discovered his secondary status. One day, Cheney took Dave to Laurel, the main building at Camp David. Once inside, Dave spotted Barney, President Bush’s Scottie. According to Cheney, “Barney was only slightly larger than the squirrels Dave so much loved chasing.” Dave chased Barney around the building until Cheney managed to distract him with a breakfast pastry. After that, the Camp Commander informed the Vice President that Dave was banned from Laurel. (Cheney)
THE PRESIDENT IS AT CAMP DAVID by W. Dale Nelson
REAL LIFE AT THE WHITE HOUSE by John Whitcomb and Claire Whitcomb
LIVING HISTORY by Hillary Rodham Clinton
ALL THINGS AT ONCE by Mika Brzezinski
WHITE HOUSE DIARY by Jimmy Carter
BARBARA BUSH A MEMOIR by Barbara Bush
IN MY TIME: A Personal and Political Memoir by Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney