As a true-blue getaway, Martha's Vineyard bears fruit for Obama and Co.

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2010; C01

On Sunday at 10:15 a.m., President Obama and his family will leave Martha's Vineyard after 10 days of vacation. During his stay, the president put on a bike helmet and rode through the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. He waited out the stormy weather with games of Scrabble with friends and trips to the town bookstore with the family. He played golf. And then some more golf. For the most part, his public appearances were limited to the links, where, for security purposes, he had to book not only his own tee time, but the ones before and after.

None of these recreations -- biking, board games, golfing -- are unique to Martha's Vineyard. And yet, the 87.5-square-mile island, with its Atlantic breezes, untrammeled dunes and small-town charm has established itself as the official getaway destination for Democratic presidents.

What's the draw for Democrats? Why "the Vineyard"?

"He enjoys the people and the beautiful place itself," said Bill Burton, a spokesman for the president. "There is great food, and it's a comfortable place with a lot of families with kids."

And for any president without pedigree, comfort you can rent!

Unlike George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush before him, and Ronald Reagan before him, Bill Clinton and Obama came to office without expansive bank accounts and fabulous family compounds.

According to the Martha's Vineyard Gazette, which has painstakingly covered the president's every move (Wednesday's dispatch: "Mr. Fitzgerald asked how the President's own game had gone. Mr. Obama said he had shot a bogey round."), the houses similar to the Blue Heron Farm, where the Obamas have stayed, rent for about $35,000 to $50,000 per week. That's steep. But it's also a lot cheaper than buying and maintaining a multimillion-dollar ranch or home by the sea.

Thomas Wallace, the owner of Wallace & Co. Sotheby's International Realty, which oversaw the rental of the home to the Obamas, would not discuss financial details but said that unlike the Clintons, who, he said, got their place as a "freebie" from individuals who offered up their homes, "every room is paid for."

"There are no favors," Wallace said. "Perceived or otherwise."

And although an especially brutal economic environment had led many critics of the president to second-guess his decision to decamp to the Vineyard's elite corners ("Obama Heads to Martha's Vineyard as New Jobless Claims Hit 500,000," read a FoxNation headline), do we really want the leader of the free world chillaxing on the Jersey Shore? Plus, Wallace said that for his island, at least, presidential visits were entirely good for business.

"The presidential visits have the obvious effect of putting the neighborhood on the map," said Wallace, who dropped that he, too, had been at the golf club on Friday where Obama and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had shot a round of golf. As they came off the links, he said, the two seemed to have "certainly looked like they were having a good time."

The White House reporters who have pined for sightings of the president have had a harder time observing the allure of the island.

("12:45 p.m." read a pool report filed by Wall Street Journal reporter Elizabeth Williamson on Friday. "We're at the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown for guess what. We are holding at the club entrance. Today's schedule so far mirrors a day on the island last year -- quick bike, drop off the family and head to the links. However, this year the pool bus toilet works. So far. Foursome names to follow shortly.")

Left with no news to report, the media have pondered the Vineyard's appeal since Clinton made it his getaway mainstay.

Last year, when Obama announced that he, like Clinton, would be headed to the island, the New York Times' Web site hosted a digital forum called "Why Democrats Love Martha's Vineyard." Some answers focused on the Democratic tilt of the island or its laid-back vibe. Others were more ambitious in their interpretations. ("The Vineyard was the perfect vacation spot for Bill Clinton, who regarded himself as America's first black president," offered Alan Dershowitz. "So it stands to reason that it will be the perfect spot for Barack Obama, who is, in fact, America's first black president.")

Maybe there are some other very good reasons. For starters, the terrain is safe. As in secure. The Obamas' rented farmhouse is situated on the part of the island not easily reached by main roads and, therefore, offers the Secret Service, who have traded in their black suits for khakis, plenty of room for a security perimeter.

Politically it's safe, too. It's Democratic country. It is part of blue-state Massachusetts, where various Kennedys have properties on the island and on the nearby mainland. The island doesn't have much in the way of exclusionary, "need-not-apply" country club baggage that other attractive golfing locales might, allowing a black president to invite a Jewish mayor out for a round of golf. It even boasts a proud history of diversity, with generations of black families in Oak Bluffs, where the president played some basketball and dined with his wife. And despite the island's more recent incarnation as a tony retreat for artists, entertainers, politicians and journalists, Martha's Vineyard has a year-round population of about 18,000 and authentic remnants of its rough whaling-port past. (In "Moby-Dick," both Flask, "a native of Tisbury, in Martha's Vineyard," and Tashtego, "an unmixed Indian from Gay-Head," were members of the Pequod's crew.)

Plus, the island's secluded roads and the location of the 30-acre Blue Heron Farm, set far off the road on the southern bay, afford a very private family a whole lot of privacy. Whereas the Clintons delightedly caused a stir when they descended on the town, the Obamas have barely ventured out. And when the president has, the purpose has usually been to swing some clubs -- again.

"Potus is golfing with Mayor Bloomberg today," Williamson, the Journal reporter, wrote in a subsequent Friday pool report to her colleagues. "And they prefaced their game with a 15-minute discussion of the economy in the clubhouse at the Vineyard Golf Club. Seeking more details. CBS's Mark Knoller, hailed by many including the WH for his command of presidential data, says the two men have not golfed together before."

Perhaps the time has come for the whole presidential entourage to escape the island. Until next year.

Staff writer Scott Wilson, reporting from Martha's Vineyard, contributed to this report.

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