Don't Go There
Martha's Vineyard is not the best presidential vacation site.
Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Dear Mr. President, How nice to know you will summer on Martha's Vineyard at Blue Heron Farm, where the amenities are said to be fabulous. "The 28-acre estate, $20 million enclave is located in Chilmark," CBS told us. "The farm suits Obama to a tee with golf facilities, a pool, basketball court, private beach, and a rental price tag of up to $50,000 a week."
What happened? Versailles and The Breakers were rented already? Is this how you empathize with the suffering masses, whose pain you feel so at town meetings? What is it with real estate and you liberal Democrats? There's John Kerry, who has five mansions, including a ski chalet whose every last stone was brought over from England; and John Edwards, whose "house" looks like five of them strung together, and which has not one, but two, stages, and its own private gym. Perhaps you could use "John's Lounge," if John isn't in it, off making one of his speeches on poverty or the unsustainable gaps between the lives of rich and poor people. There really are Two Americas. No one knows it better than do you and Kerry and Edwards, and you know which one you belong to. As will the swing voters, as they stay at home nursing their shrunken portfolios, and watching you splash on the beach on TV.
And then there's the matter of the Vineyard itself, whose place in the history of presidential vacations has not been terribly good. "The enemy of economic populism is wealth and privilege," writes Dick Morris, the guru who helped Bill Clinton return from the political dead after having been poleaxed in the 1994 midterm elections. "The enemy of social populism is the intellectual and cultural elite." Put it this way, and the Vineyard turns into the ultimate twofer when it comes to being a jinx on political fortunes. It is the place where the intellectual and cultural elite wallow not only in self-satisfaction but in privilege beyond all belief. The Clintons pioneered the presidential use of the Vineyard for summer vacations, and for them, these vacations came in two kinds: the pride-goeth-before-a-fall-pre-Republican Congress vacations of 1993-94, and the post-confession Remorse Vacation of the impeachment summer, than which no worse First Vacation has ever occurred.
For the first two, the Clintons wallowed in love, but managed to pay zilch for the privilege, camping out in pads borrowed from friends-in 1993 the 15-acre spread with ocean view of Robert S. McNamara, whose own political history was not all that happy, and in 1994 the 20-acre estate of a rich liberal donor, which featured, in the words of Sally Bedell Smith, the Clintons' biographer, "a spacious, nineteenth century shingled house, hammocks, horses, a pet pig, and a guest cottage, where Bill could retreat to work and read." Love the pig, don't you?
There, as Smith says, they mixed with the humble folk of the island, Kay Graham, Beverly Sills, Bill and Rose Styron, Walter Cronkite, various Kennedys, Christopher Reeve, Michael J. Fox, and Glenn Close. "Everywhere else, the Clintons were being judged," one guest told the author, but not on the Vineyard. "It was unconditional love." They came home from this to the '94 wipeout. After they had lost both the House and the Senate, Morris would see this love as having been all too unconditional, wrapping the president in a deceptive cocoon of approval, not shared by the country at large.
When Morris came in to help Clinton recover, keeping the Clintons away from the Vineyard became one of his paramount aims. He said the early vacations had hurt the president politically-"photos of him on a yacht with Jackie Onassis did not help his populist image"-and began planning a series of more homey outings that would help him go up in the polls. With the assistance of Mark Penn, he polled for things that appealed to swing voters, and planned vacations around them. Swing voters liked hiking. Swing voters liked baseball. They did not like cruising with Carly Simon on a yacht. "I presented the strategy group with a list of approved presidential activities," Morris later related. They proposed "that he take a mountain vacation, that he hike and camp out in a tent." This did not thrill Clinton, who groused, and "began to pose hypotheticals. 'What if I hike, set up my campsite, but I don't catch anything?' " he asked sarcastically. " 'Will that be OK?' " Nonetheless, Morris prevailed, and in 1995 and 1996 the president went on more rugged vacations, camping in the Rockies and at Jackson Hole in Wyoming, where he borrowed a ranch from Senator Jay Rockefeller but avoided the jet set and boats. As you recall, Clinton began rising in the polls in those years.
With this in mind, the White House went into a panic when the Clintons were asked to the Vineyard for a celebrity wedding in the fall of 1995, just as the reelection campaign kicked off. "I groaned when I heard," Morris recalled, and he started conniving with Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and others to keep the First Couple away. He and George Stephanopoulos began plotting to limit the Clintons' time on the island; Panetta suggested "it was hurricane season, and maybe the president wouldn't be able to fly." The First Couple did go, but Morris lucked out when a storm arrived, and pushed the event off the front pages. "Coverage of the wedding was all but drowned out by the focus on Hurricane Opal," as Morris gloated. "The storm didn't stop the Clintons from going, but it did force their early return."
And then there was the 1998 Vacation From Hell, just days after Clinton's speech admitting his intern-al affair. It kicked off with the Clintons' walk across the White House lawn to the helicopter, watched by soap opera addicts everywhere, followed by reports of who said what to whom on the flight to the Vineyard, and then reports through the week: Was Bill in or out of the doghouse, and did they look at each other, and were they smiling, and did they talk to each other yet? Suffice it to say that one does not want to start a family holiday with a confession on television of fooling around with a college-age intern. Suffice it to say, too, that the Vineyard hasn't been good to the Clintons, and is a place a president might really want to avoid.
Really, Mr. President, do you need all of this karma, all of this agita, and all of these bad vibes? Back in the day, as the Washington Post's Al Kamen reminds us, Bill himself got "positively hammered in the press" for turning his back on his home-boy persona to kick up his heels with the privileged. ("Clinton Among the Swells," the New York Times scolded.) And the Clintons went to this glitzy, blue-state, and celebrity playground during good times and not a recession, didn't throw money around in a mogul-like manner, and weren't recently on the wrong end of a town-v.-gown drama, with one of their friends (on the gown end of the fracas) summering on the Vineyard himself. On the other hand, the Clintons' poll numbers also were falling, and they were also in the midst of a huge fight on health care, which they ended up losing.
Morris suspects the Vineyard frolicking played a part in this loss. You could do worse than to call up Dick Morris and ask him to run polls on voter-friendly vacations, voter-friendly locations, and recreational sports that appeal to swing voters, of the kind you are losing. Forget Massachusetts, and think of Ohio. Forget Chilmark, Oak Bluffs, and the Vineyard; the people who summer there love you already. Michigan is less "in," but it is much more important. Macomb County is lovely at this time of the year.
But if you insist on defying the odds and the gods with your Vineyard fixation, Morris still has some words of advice. As he wrote later about the contentious celebrity wedding, "We did succeed in limiting the time they were on the Vineyard and arranged to follow the visit with a trip to the Boston area and . . . a statement about protecting police." Police! Where have we heard that word lately? The perfect idea. Stop off at the Cambridge police headquarters, and talk to the folks there. Call on your new friend James Crowley, and bring your old friend Skip Gates with you. He's just been to your house, so it's only expected. Sit in his garden. And you bring the beer.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.