The Magazine

Don't Go There

Martha's Vineyard is not the best presidential vacation site.

Aug 17, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 45 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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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.