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Presidential Vacations Carry Heavy Baggage

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The Vineyard, though well accustomed to the rich and famous, is readying itself for its first official presidential vacation in eight years. Sharky's Cantina already features Obamaritas and Barack-o Tacos on the menu; the Offshore Ale Co. has brewed up a special Ale to the Chief; and Mad Martha's Ice Cream is set to announce a new flavor to mark the occasion -- although not until Obama arrives. Many residents have also dusted off their "Obama 2008" yard signs.

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"President Clinton, when he stayed, really had a working vacation with fundraisers and events," said Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. "We're getting the feeling that President Obama will be a little more low-key."

As would be the case with any president, a large portion of the White House staff and press corps will follow Obama to the island. An advance staff has taken up residence at the Wesley Hotel in the town of Oak Bluffs, while Oak Bluffs School is being readied to serve as a media center, according to local news reports.

"The reality is that the responsibilities of being president travel with you wherever you go, but the president is looking forward to spending some time relaxing with his family," said Vietor, the White House spokesman.

Presidential vacations have long been fraught with symbolism, both positive and negative, according to Wilentz and other historians. Reagan, Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush prized spending time on their ranches, projecting cowboy imagery in the process. But Bush also discovered the political perils of vacationing in August 2005, when he stayed in Texas as New Orleans residents pleaded for federal help in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The political importance of vacation destinations was cast into sharp focus prior to Clinton's 1996 reelection bid, when pollster Dick Morris told him that hobnobbing with celebrities on the Vineyard was bad for his image. Clinton agreed to Western, outdoor-style vacations in Wyoming before resuming his trips to Martha's Vineyard in 1997.

Most recent U.S. presidents have had one or more private getaways at their disposal. Franklin D. Roosevelt had his Hyde Park, N.Y., estate and his Warm Springs, Ga., cottage, where he sought relief from the painful effects of polio. Richard M. Nixon had the "Western White House" at San Clemente, Calif., and the "Florida White House" in Key Biscayne. John F. Kennedy returned home to Hyannis Port, Mass., while Dwight D. Eisenhower sought refuge at a small farm near Gettysburg, Pa., that he and his wife purchased after decades of military life.

Other presidents, such as Clinton, had little or no property and relied on friends and donors for largesse. Gerald R. Ford frequently stayed at the homes of friends in Palm Springs, Calif., and Vail, Colo., buying homes in both places after leaving office. Jimmy Carter was an avid user of the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md.

Obama's public vow to pay his family's portion of the rent on Martha's Vineyard is unusual, several historians said. Obama has also taken personal breaks in Hawaii, where he was born and spent part of his childhood, and at his main residence in Chicago.

"You have people that are rooted in a place, and so they go there for vacations," said Catholic University political science professor John Kenneth White, pointing to Reagan, the Bushes and Kennedy as examples. "But others are more rootless, and Obama may be that way in some sense. His life story is not one of putting down roots, per se, but more of the restless journey."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.


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