Commanding officer of Camp David talks foray into presidential retreats

Wednesday, November 28, 2018 - 10:54pm

Rear Admiral Michael Giorgione speaks on his time as the commanding officer of Camp David in the Gerald R. Ford Library Wednesday evening. Giorgione served at the presidential hideaway from 1999 to 2001 under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Rear Admiral Michael Giorgione speaks on his time as the commanding officer of Camp David in the Gerald R. Ford Library Wednesday evening. Giorgione served at the presidential hideaway from 1999 to 2001 under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Buy this photo
Mike Zlonkevicz/Daily

Rear Admiral Michael Giorgione, author of “Inside Camp David: The Private World of the Presidential Retreat,” spoke Wednesday night at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library to discuss his book and share personal anecdotes from his time at the camp.  

Giorgione was the commanding officer of Camp David, a country retreat used by U.S. presidents and their families, from 1999 to 2001. During that time, he worked under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Located in the wooded hills of Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, Camp David, according to Giorgione, has been American diplomacy’s secret weapon since its founding in 1938, playing a vital role in both international and domestic relationships.

The Public Policy library often invites speakers or hosts events that are related to the presidency, Elaine Didier, the director of the library and its affiliated museum in Grand Rapids, explained.

“We have both journalists and scholars who are researching different presidents, looking at issues that the presidents cover, and in this case, it’s not the presidency but a place that the presidents used,” she said. “So that was the driver in inviting Mr. Giorgione here.”

The lecture began with audience members sitting in a pitch-black room, with the lights turned off. Almost immediately, the sound of choppers played over the speakers. Giorgione used these effects to highlight a typical start to a working day at Camp David: the arrival of the president.

Edward Vincent, an Ann Arbor community member, said he enjoyed the use of auditory effects during the presentation.

“That really stood out to me because that was a very dramatic and suspenseful moment. I wasn’t sure if he was going to put something on the screen. But he used that to dramatize how Camp David is when the president isn’t there and when he is,” he said.

Giorgione describes the camp as a simple place.

“It’s a very nice camp with very plain facilities. Single story structures. No brass. No polish. No marble. That’s Camp David. That’s part of the allure of this mountaintop retreat at 1,800-feet elevation.” he said.

Such plainness is what creates the tranquil nature, he explained — there is an intimacy to the place that cannot be felt in the West Wing of the White House. Giorgione further recounted moments spent with members of the Kennedy family who have spent every Thanksgiving at Camp David, with Chelsea Clinton who gave her old stuffed dolls to Giorgione’s kids to use, and with Laura Bush who loved to play in autumn leaves on the lawn.

Jerri Jenista, a hospital worker at the Medical School, said she enjoyed hearing about the presidents’ everyday lives.

“It was nice to hear that the presidents were real people, they have real lives, their families are real people,” she said.

The retreat is necessary, he Giorgione says, because of the lonely sentry theory, an idea he references from his book. The theory states a marine will patrol alone all night in freezing subzero weather because of his duty to the country. In his mind, the marine is the president.

Giorgione discussed the challenges of being in place of responsibility as well as command, where all eyes are on them.

“They don’t really have a place to getaway that often but maybe this is the one place that they can getaway.” he said.

Giorgione also discussed the challenges of being a leader, whether that is the responsibility that comes with being the commanding officer of Camp David or the international challenges the president of the country faces. That is why Camp David is so necessary, he said, to offer a tranquil escape.

Though Camp David was primarily a retreat for the presidents, it has also been the grounds for international talks and peace treaties. From President Ronald Reagan entertaining British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill smoking cigars and discussing how and when the U.S. will enter WWII.

“It still comes down to two people building human relationships,” Giorgione said. “You have to get face to face. You have to get to know each other.”

Giorgione told another story from his book, dubbed the “infamous horseshoe incident.” In 1990, Bush invited President Mikhail Gorbachev of the former Soviet Union to Camp David, where they then engaged in a game of horseshoe tossing.

Bush had always been an avid fan competitive games, Giorgione said. But, Gorbachev, despite not having ever tossed a single horseshoe, gets a ringer for the first time.  

“It is the little things that resonate and stay with you,” he said. “It is perfect but natural.” 

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