In the semi-sleepy town of Thurmont, MD, pop 7,000, you won’t catch the natives all starry-eyed and hopelessly agog over ‘David’ – that’s what the locals call Camp David, the renowned retreat of presidents wrapped snugly in the coolness of Catoctin National Park, a 30-minute helicopter ride from the White House.
Of course, not every small town in America can brag that the most powerful leader in the free world is a frequent weekend visitor. Thanks to extraordinarily tight security measures, President Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden can slip in and out of town without being fawned over. The people who call this home respect their right to privacy.
Thurmont, with its down-hominess, a strong and steady economic base and a country music radio station blasting the ether with songs about honky tonks and cheating hearts, finds itself spinning on a carousel of rich and deep history.
It was here that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who named the cloistered compound after his grandson and father, both of them named David, met British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and abandoned all semblance of protocol at Palm Sunday church services. It was 1959, recalled the late George Wireman, the town’s historian and newspaper editor, “and I had the honor of escorting them. I asked them to sign the church register, and they were just like a couple of kids! Macmillan asked, Ike, “Now, how are you going to sign the book? Are you going to put the White House, Camp David or your farm in Gettysburg as your address?” So Ike turned to Macmillan and said, ‘well, how are you going to sign it? Are you going to sign it No. 10 Downing Street, or are you going to give your personal address. And then,” Wireman went on, “they got to arguing who was going to be the first to sign the book. They were just ordinary people.”
`Ordinary’ may be underselling it, but I get his drift. He’s trying to humanize the 46 presidencies, including Biden, and the 45 different men who have served the country from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and, by association, getaways such as Camp David.
You have to go back 13 presidents in order to track its history as the exclusive domain of chief executives, their families and their guests. Credit Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1942, for transforming the property which became Camp David from a base for federal agents into a mountain hideaway. The compound is very much an oasis, far from – if not geographically, at least mentally – from the rigors of governing and overseeing 320 million citizens and a $6.55 trillion budget. It’s all laid out: a golf course, hot tub, swimming pool close to lodges named Aspen, Laure, Birch, Dogwood, Rosebud, Red Oak and Hawthorn. It conjures up visions of trees indigenous to the Maryland mountains.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stopped at the world-famous Cozy Inn for dinner. He was on his way to a wartime meeting with FDR. Other celebrities include CBS TV anchorman Walter Cronkite and ABC’s Sam Donaldson and Barbara Walters. But one guy I interviewed, thought the rarified list should also have on it the unsung team that pilots the presidential helicopter, who sack out at the local motel. And lest we forget members of the White House press corps. Okay, and as difficult as it is for me to say it, even Fox. We have to be fair and balanced, after all.
History keeps whistling through the dense, unforgiving forest that surrounds the place. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty that was signed in 1978 is named the Camp David Accords. The historic document was signed by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin while President Jimmy Carter looked on. Where else but American can a peanut farmer from a tiny town in Georgia become the leader of his country? We also got a haberdasher (Truman) and an actor (Reagan), and a snake-oil salesman (Trump). So there’s hope for all of us.
“It’s a low-key town,” remarked one Main Street merchant, adding the Secret Service game plan for presidential visits is predictable. “The only thing that might alert us, is when the motorcade comes through. When the mountain’s fogged in and he can’t fly, he takes the helicopter to the landing pad at one of the schools and then drives.”
If you have a hankering to stroll over to ‘David’ in hope of meeting Biden (who prefers his homes in Wilmington, DE or his beach houses in nearby Rehoboth Beach over the mountains), wipe it from your nerve endings. While most of the 6,000-acre Catoctin Mountain Park is yours to romp through at will, you won’t get near Camp David. All in the interest of national security, naturally. In warmer weather, though, you can unfurl your mayonnaise-stained blanket at the picnic site only a mile from the camp, and over a picnic-lunch of All-American classics like spanakopita and moussaka, imagine the likes of Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Nikita Krushchev walking nearby. And the guy who raised peanuts in a town called Plains.