By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Summer vacations say a lot about a president. Ronald Reagan spent up to a month each season at his beloved Rancho del Cielo near Santa Barbara, Calif., much of the time on horseback. George H.W. Bush retreated to the family's compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, while his son, George W. Bush, preferred clearing brush at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.
Then there was Bill Clinton, always restless and without a home, who often borrowed the compound of a wealthy Democratic donor on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., spending nights on the town hosting fundraisers or playing the saxophone in a local tavern.
President Obama will bring his notably calmer, cooler demeanor to the Vineyard when he arrives Aug. 23 for a family vacation. There are no public events scheduled during the week; Obama plans to spend most of the time in seclusion with his family and a few close friends, aides say.
The president who preaches bipartisanship has chosen to stay at the private estate of a prominent Republican. Obama, who has vacationed on the island in the past, is paying for his family's portion of a total rent estimated at $25,000 or more.
"There's been a public significance to presidential vacations going back all the way to Lincoln, who went to the Soldier's Home in Washington during the Civil War," said Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor and the author of "The Age of Reagan."
"You have to show the country that you are getting respite from the job, but also that you are still ever at the ready. It's a delicate balance."
Obama, first lady Michelle and their two daughters, Malia and Sasha, will be staying at Blue Heron Farm, a 28-acre waterfront estate owned by William Van Devender, a Mississippi timber merchant who supported Obama's opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), in last year's election. Located on the island's rural west end, the meticulously restored estate was purchased by Van Devender for $20 million in 2005 and includes a main house, several guest quarters, a swimming pool, a golf tee and a basketball court.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Obama "is paying for his family's lodging during their time on Martha's Vineyard." He declined to say how much Obama will pay or how much the trip will cost taxpayers, citing U.S. Secret Service security policies. The costs of such lodgings are usually split between the White House and the Secret Service; the local Vineyard Gazette reported that the rent in this case will be split three ways -- among the Obamas, the Secret Service and the White House.
Similar properties on the island commonly rent for $25,000 or more per week during the height of the summer season, according to local real estate agents. " 'Understated elegance' is how I would describe it," said Tom Wallace of Wallace & Co. Sotheby's International Realty, which is brokering the rental. "It's a very tranquil, quiet setting."
The luxuriousness of the getaway poses a political challenge for Obama at a time when many Americans are struggling with economic distress. Obama said in a recent interview that he thinks about the hardships facing Americans "every single day," but he also defended his vacation plans.
"Do I think the American people think that because of those hardships I shouldn't spend some quality time with my daughters?" Obama said on CBS News. "I don't think that's what the American people think about it."
The Vineyard is familiar ground for Obama, who has stayed with friends on the island several times since 2004 and attended at least two fundraisers there during his presidential campaign. Oak Bluffs, a historic African American area on the northeast part of the island, includes vacation homes owned by Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, who plans to be there the same week as the Obamas, and Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose recent run-in with police became a focus of controversy for the president.
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.
"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.