President Obama Mixes Duty and Play on Martha's Vineyard Vacation

Barack Obama's first presidential vacation began with a hurricane, was interrupted for a major economic announcement and is ending with a sad eulogy for a famous friend. Video by AP
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 28, 2009

OAK BLUFFS, Mass. -- Give the guy credit for trying.

President Obama came to this tiny, upscale island of Martha's Vineyard for a break from his day job, a week-long respite from the angry town halls and the pessimistic pundits and the Democratic lawmakers who just won't seem to fall into line. It was supposed to be a vacation.

But alas, the modern presidency hardly grants full escapes. There is, the 44th president is quickly discovering, no way to shrug off the burdens of the economy, the adoring crowds who hold digital cameras high over their heads, or -- it sadly turns out -- the vagaries of life and death.

"I apologize for interrupting the relaxing I told you all to do," a tie-less president told reporters on the second full day of his retreat from Washington, as he did that most Washington of things: reappointing the Federal Reserve chairman to another four-year term.

Offering an island paradise as the backdrop for Ben Bernanke's second anointment was, of course, Obama's own choice and timing. The death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was not, and the passing of his friend and onetime colleague -- which he learned about from an aide at 2 a.m. -- has injected a somber tone into what was supposed to be a lighthearted week.

Obama plans to eulogize Kennedy at the senator's funeral Saturday morning in Boston, making the brief hop from Martha's Vineyard to the mainland and then returning to Blue Heron Farm, his rented getaway, for one more night free from the humid weather -- and all the hot air -- in Washington.

And yet, despite the interruptions, aides say, Obama has approached relaxing here with the same determined, cram-it-all-in approach that he has brought to legislating. In five days, they say, the first family has managed to have plenty of fun in between the burdens of office.

"Obviously, some things have come up over the course of the week that have probably cut into a lot of the different things he's done to relax," spokesman Bill Burton said. "But, you know, we were out there on the basketball court yesterday, and he was talking as much trash as he usually does. And that's the rumor from the golf course as well. So it sounds like the relaxing is happening at an appropriate pace."

An appropriate pace -- the likes of which we haven't seen since Bush I -- for a slightly obsessed president who brought the highly secure presidential BlackBerry to his seaside vacation. (Maybe it's that New England air.) He has been wearing it "intermittently," a White House aide admitted.

Thursday, the first family hopped on bikes for a beach-side ride in Aquinnah, a town on the southwest tip of Martha's Vineyard, where rocky cliffs soar above the crystal-blue water. Dressed in a dark shirt, Obama rode, without a helmet, ahead of the group, which included Michelle (orange tank top!), Malia (pink cap sleeves!) and Sasha (bright yellow short sleeves and turquoise shorts!) as locals gathered along Lobsterville Road to snap pictures.

Also in tow and in helmets: longtime best friend Eric Whitaker and his family, Obama's brother-in-law, Konrad Ng, and a phalanx of helmetless Secret Service agents -- also on bikes.

Reading was on the presidential "time to relax schedule," though it's unclear how many books Obama actually got through. The list included George Pelecanos's "The Way Home," Thomas L. Friedman's "Hot, Flat and Crowded," David McCullough's "John Adams," Kent Haruf's "Plainsong," and Richard Price's "Lush Life."

As he does in Washington, Obama has begun his days here in a private gym, and at least on one morning he played tennis with the first lady before heading out to the golf course with his first buddies. Aides say he has received daily economic and national security briefings but will not provide details.

Monday included a full five hours at the Farm Neck Golf Club, a semiprivate and very difficult course, with UBS Investment Bank President Robert Wolf, White House aide Marvin Nicholson and Whitaker. Tuesday was a quicker nine holes at Mink Meadows with Nicholson, Michael Ruemmler of Obama's advance team and Sam Kass, the White House chef. Thursday, he tried out the Vineyard Golf Club.

"I hope I didn't mess anyone's day up," Obama said Tuesday, according to Ronnie Lytle, a local retiree who came to Mink Meadows for an 8:20 a.m. tee time but didn't get to play because so many carts were being reserved for the president's party.

"You did," she says she told him, "but I don't care."

The president's image was everywhere on this island. One store replaced the face of a life-size likeness of fictional pirate Jack Sparrow with Obama's mug. Another plastered a photo of the first family on its window. The display of a T-shirt shop features several variations of the "I vacationed with Obama" shirt. An ice cream parlor touted two specials: The "Magnificent Malia Milkshake" and the "Sashalicious Smoothie."

Most island veterans seemed content to play the "where will the president go?" game, trading gossip about where they'd seen the Secret Service in the previous days. Rumors on the island suggested -- incorrectly -- that the first tourist might take his girls to an aquarium or to dine at a ritzy club.

Tuesday night, as word bounced around Oak Bluffs that Obama would eat at the Caribbean-inspired Deon's, residents and vacationers ran down Circuit Avenue and massed in front of the restaurant, eagerly clutching their cameras. A half-hour later, Obama's motorcade pulled up a block farther down the street for the first couple's dinner at the Sweet Life Cafe.

Few people got shots as the Obamas ducked in the front door.

Early in the week, Burton had promised "no news," a pledge he characterized Thursday as "a little bit of wishful thinking." Watching a grim Obama on Wednesday morning as he publicly mourned Kennedy's death, it was hard to picture his visit here as a stress-free vacation.

"The president, when he ran for this office, knew that there would be no days where he was completely down," Burton told reporters. Next Wednesday, the president and his family head to Camp David for a few more days away from the White House.

"He's looking to get a break from his vacation," Burton joked.

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