What Martha's Vineyard means to Democratic presidents

What Martha's Vineyard means to Democratic presidents

MARTHA’S VINEYARD, Mass. – For an island that resolutely resists such symbols of modernity as McDonald’s and traffic lights, the oversized electronic signs by the side of the road right now are jarringly unaesthetic.

The message flashing on these garish traffic bulletin boards is even more troubling: Parts of South Road – the main gateway to Chilmark, Lucy Vincent Beach and the cliffs of Aquinnah – will be closed for a week starting Saturday. This is a mortal blow to the delicate ecosystem of Vineyard traffic during August vacation gridlock.

The subtext here is obvious: This is the price of having Barack Obama vacation here for the fourth time in his presidency. Of course, this is the first round-the-clock closure of a major Vineyard road since Bill Clinton began summering here in 1993. But the ways of the Secret Service are as inscrutable as the eternal mysteries of time and tide.

For all the grumbling, pride in the president trumps traffic snarls. Obama received nearly three quarters of the vote on the island in 2012 – and the summer influx from Boston and New York does nothing to dilute the Vineyard’s true-blue Democratic devotion.

But what explains the hypnotic allure of this 88-square-mile island for Democratic presidents?

Obama and Clinton have come to the Vineyard every presidential summer except (coincidentally, of course) when they were running for reelection. It is almost as if there were a secret plank in the Democratic Party Platform mandating vacation destinations for residents of the Oval Office.

There are obvious surface explanations: Oak Bluffs is home to the nation’s oldest affluent African-American resort community. For the garrulous Clinton especially, part of the allure of the Vineyard was the presence of wealthy Democratic donors whose allegiance could be cemented with a bit of presidential face time. And the Secret Service must love a president vacationing on an island since in an emergency, entrances and exits can be tightly controlled.

But Obama, who received nearly 63 million votes in the last election, can obviously find other vacation enclaves in this vast land where every golf shot and family foray out for ice cream cones would be cheered by gushing supporters.

Cape Cod was certainly good enough for John Kennedy. Nantucket, another island off the coast of Massachusetts, is more remote. There are probably more Democratic high rollers hovering behind the hedgerows in the Hamptons than on the Vineyard. And nothing prevents Obama from taking his family to Hawaii, his birthplace, twice a year rather than just reserving the Aloha State for Christmas vacation.

What the Vineyard uniquely offers, though, is an understated elitism as defined by Harvard (where Obama attended law school) and Yale (where Bill and Hillary met). Even though it has been awash in money since the late 1990s, the Vineyard’s self-definition still revolves around its history as a haven for writers, artists and academics.

But literary titans like William Styron are dead. And few linguistics professors can afford to buy a house on an island where virtually any property with even a hazy, distant view of the ocean comes with a seven-digit price tag. In a sense, the Vineyard is now home to hedge fund partners who secretly believe they have an artistic soul.

Republican presidents (Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush) tend to favor ranches as modern-day symbols of how the West was won with a gun. In contrast, the Vineyard was won by the harpoon (originally for whaling and now for subduing swordfish that are reputedly more delectable than the line-caught variety).

On the Vineyard, vulgar displays of conspicuous consumption are tempered by the remnants of New England restraint. So $10-million homes, all done in earth tones, are hidden down serpentine dirt roads where beaches are unmarked or badly camouflaged with big-lie signs that read, “No Beach Access.”

When Bill Clinton first came to the Vineyard, he reportedly cracked, “Back in Arkansas, everyone wants to get off the dirt roads.” On the Vineyard, they are a status symbol.

What the Vineyard represents to Democrats, most of all, is an idealized version of how the American meritocracy is supposed to work. Here, the social arbiters for presidents are not old-family grandees, but African-American success stories like Vernon Jordan (Clinton) and Valerie Jarrett (Obama). The Vineyard, in theory, is a paradise designed for anyone who scored well on their SATs.

Please understand that I have written these paragraphs out of affection as someone who has rented houses on the Vineyard for nearly two decades. My point is not the obnoxious boast that my summer retreat is better than your summer retreat. Rather, I am trying to use the Vineyard as a way to illustrate the subtle nuances of social class that divide Democrats and Republicans.

During their presidential vacations to the Vineyard, both Clinton and Obama have failed to adapt to the island spirit in one important respect: they are far too hyper-active.

With Clinton it was relentless socializing and hand-shaking as if the local farmer’s market held the key to the national agricultural vote. Obama has been unleashing his inner jock with a frenzy of golf, half-court basketball, tennis with Michelle and biking and swimming with his daughters.

Hillary Clinton appears to have better appreciated the toes-in-the-sand and a book-in-the-hand aspect of a Vineyard vacation.

But it was also on the Vineyard during the summer of 1998 when she seethed with silent rage over her husband’s betrayal. (Hillary’s Arctic reaction to Monica Lewinsky was the antithesis of her protegee, Huma Abedin, coming across in public as her husband Anthony Weiner’s enabler). More historic perhaps was Hillary’s 1999 Vineyard fund-raiser that launched her Senate campaign -- and so much more.

In small-“d” democratic terms, the Vineyard should be welcome ground for presidential dreamers from both parties. After all, the Flying Horses Carousel, the oldest in the nation, has been making lazy circles in a barn in downtown Oak Bluffs for 129 years. It is one of the few places left in America where a politician can truly grab for the brass ring.