ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all spent Christmas at Camp David. George W. Bush celebrated the holiday there a dozen times - four times when his father was president and eight more times during his own time in office.
President Obama skipped Camp David in favor of Hawaii each Christmas. And President Donald Trump is at one of his own resorts, which he seems to prefer. As NPR's Joel Rose reports, that is raising questions about the future of the rustic retreat in the Maryland woods.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: There's no sign announcing the entrance to Camp David - just a security gate in the middle of the forest.
JOHN KINNAIRD: And you'll see there are signs that say no parking, no standing, no photography.
ROSE: That's John Kinnaird. He's the mayor of nearby Thurmont, Md. We drove in his pickup truck up a winding two-lane road through Catoctin Mountain Park to the front gate more than a thousand feet above town.
KINNAIRD: Yeah, we're only 60 miles from Washington, which might as well be on another planet because it's nothing like D.C. - nothing at all. It's a whole different world.
ROSE: A world not many people have seen.
MICHAEL GIORGIONE: Manicured lawns, roads, trees - very humble, I think, subtle cabins.
ROSE: Rear Admiral Michael Giorgione was commanding officer at Camp David for part of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush's presidencies. He's written about his time there in a new book called "Inside Camp David."
GIORGIONE: There's no press. There's no public. There's no one watching. I think what I observed was them being themselves with their family, friends, whomever.
ROSE: It was originally Franklin Roosevelt's idea to build a handful of simple cabins on a secluded mountaintop in northern Maryland. Roosevelt called it Shangri-La, says Rice University historian and Roosevelt biographer Douglas Brinkley.
DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: There are Americans that prefer to be in the solitude of the woods and fishing to bring clarity to their mind and to de-stress. FDR was one of those men, so was Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter.
ROSE: It was Carter who made the place famous around the world. He hosted secret negotiations between Israel and Egypt that resulted in the Camp David Accords. President Reagan spent the most time at Camp David - more than 500 days.
But not every president has fallen in love with the place. President Obama spent fewer than 50 days there. And just before he took office, President Trump told a European journalist, it's nice. You'd like it for about 30 minutes.
Trump has visited Camp David a handful of times, including earlier this month, but he spent many more weekends at his own golf resorts in New Jersey and Florida.
JOHN BROWN: If I owned a Mar-a-Lago, I'd be there (laughter).
ROSE: John Brown owns a jewelry store in Thurmont, down the hill from Camp David. The area is pretty heavily Republican. Donna Bollinger owns a restaurant in town. She says there's a lot of support for President Trump, and she'd like to see him visit more often.
DONNA BOLLINGER: I think it's good for business. People get excited when they know the roads are closed to the park, and they talk about it.
ROSE: The recent lack of presidential interest has prompted speculation about the future of Camp David, which costs the government about $8 million a year to run. But there may be other ways to justify the expense.
Garrett Graff is the author of the book "Raven Rock" about the government bunkers that are designed to protect U.S. leaders in case of attack. He says Camp David still has some strategic value.
GARRETT GRAFF: It remains an important part of the government's relocation plans. I mean, it was, after all, where Dick Cheney spent a good portion of those weeks and months after 9/11 in that undisclosed location.
ROSE: There are signs that President Trump may be growing more fond of Camp David. After a wonderful visit this month, he called the retreat, quote, "a very special place," unquote on Twitter.
If Trump is having a change of heart, there's a precedent for that, too. President Dwight Eisenhower was planning to shut the place down when he visited for the first time. Instead, Eisenhower renamed it Camp David after his grandson and came back many times during his presidency. Joel Rose, NPR News, Thurmont, Md. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.