Who can blame anyone for wanting to get away from the stormy, humid clime that is the norm in the nation's capital in August and repair to the quiet beaches, charming towns, delicious seafood and intimate parties that are mainstays of this island outpost off the Massachusetts coast?
Well, anyone except for Barack Obama. The president's in the house on Martha's Vineyard, and a question — should he be? — reverberates across the land, especially in Washington, D.C. Washington Post columnists Eugene Robinson and Colbert King, along with a host of pundits, pols and Republicans, say with certitude that the president should not, during these times of wild swings in the stock market, creeping inflation, high unemployment, mounting problems in the eurozone and the twists and turns in foreign events, spend even a day resting and relaxing in the comforts of a ritzy resort.
Chris Matthews of MSNBC has been on the president's case since long before the Obamas flew here Thursday. One of his guests, Ken Walsh of U.S. News & World Report, said he usually feels "everybody needs a break … but this year, Martha's Vineyard is not the place to go … hanging out with the elites." Predictably, right-wingers and Fox News hosts, along with Rush Limbaugh, have been beside themselves. Let's ignore Republican "presidential candidates" Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. Mitt Romney criticized the president's choice while, ironically, he, Romney, will be in Edgartown, Mass., for a fundraiser. Edgartown is on Martha's Vineyard. How ridiculous can they get?
Many I talked to here on the Vineyard and back in Washington have mixed views, some agreeing with those who say Obama should have settled for his home in Chicago's Hyde Park — as close to an elite suburb to be found anywhere (though it's really not Martha's Vineyard) — or the quietude of Camp David in the Maryland mountains northwest of the capital, where he does spend some weekends, as have many other past chief executives.
Others feel the criticism is mainly politically motivated, rejecting the cost argument that taxpayers pick up the tab for security, staff, etc., which they would pick up no matter where in the world the president kicked up his heels, for work or pleasure. The Obamas have always paid for their vacations.
My own view is, let him and his family have fun wherever and whenever he can. The man is taking a beating daily, in the polls and from constant bombardment from the GOP campaigns. Look at his hair, how it seems more difficult for his barbers to conceal the gray. I get the feeling that some days he says, "Forget it. Let the gray show!" And I loved his answer to those who urged him to call senators and members of Congress back in session; I felt that it would be the worst thing for those who have been causing him and the country so much torment to return to town now, and he seemed to concur.
The president's choice of Martha's Vineyard is nothing new. He vacationed here before he was elected, and he has returned annually since. The family takes up residence for 10 days at the Blue Herron Farm, which rents for $50,000 a week.
He plays golf, and the family dines at local restaurants on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs and along its waterfront. His daughters, Sasha and Malia, have stopped in at video and game shops, usually causing excitement among the young patrons. This year, young people have flocked to the arcade on Circuit, cameras in hand, hoping the Obama girls will make an appearance.
Last year my friends and I went to a restaurant the Obamas had just departed, and a tourist refused to give up the seat that the president had occupied.
The first family's visits always cause headaches for islanders, tourists and other visitors. Streets are blocked, and patrons at restaurants and other businesses are sometimes locked inside or temporarily barred by Secret Service agents protecting the Obamas. One street, East Chop, where White House Senior Adviser and Assistant Valerie Jarrett has a house, was blocked last year for about half an hour when the Obamas arrived for an outing, holding up guests attending other events in the tony neighborhood. But most people here, including those on East Chop, accept the slight inconveniences with glee.
Blacks on Martha's Vineyard are not new. Jill Nelson, the writer and journalist, calls it home and explains the black presence in her fine history, Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island. She notes that "it is not a racial utopia, but it was and is better than most places." The book flap says the island "has provided respite and rejuvenation, community and contemplation for generations of African Americans." The Vineyard was settled by slaves and their descendants, who first came with their white employers and "established a haven and a community" for "black middle-class families who came each summer to escape the heat, hostility and racial tension of their hometowns; and generations of African-American professionals — doctors, presidential advisors, writers, academics, and artists."
While Nelson and her family are longtime residents, the same groups of professionals continue to flock to the island for the reasons she chronicles. Rich? Some are, but most are not. Elite? That's a matter of opinion. I'm sure that some consider themselves elite; most would disagree. It seems to be what it always was: a place that welcomed us, where we felt comfortable when most vacation spots in America barred nonwhites from their premises.
Meanwhile, Walsh and others pointed out that past presidents were also criticized about their vacation choices and places to chill. Dwight Eisenhower spent way too much time at his Gettysburg, Penn., farm — 365 days over six years — leading Democrats to call him a "part-time president." Some were knocked for their stays at their preferred haunts: Richard Nixon for running off to Key Biscayne, Fla., and San Clemente, Calif.; George H.W. Bush to Kennebunkport, Maine; George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan to their ranches in Crawford, Texas, and Santa Barbara, Calif., respectively.
Bill Clinton, like Obama, chose Martha's Vineyard, but Chris Matthews noted that he was usually "seen with a big cigar, hanging out with Vernon Jordan." Clinton was also forced to cancel a trip to the Vineyard in 1995 because of poor economic conditions during his re-election campaign — sound familiar? He instead went to Grand Teton National Park but never returned (hey, he's a Vineyard guy). Reagan, too, canceled a vacation in 1983 after the Russians shot down a Korean Air Lines passenger jet.
I have not seen any polls that show Americans are necessarily displeased with the Vineyard vacation. I think that most have more serious gripes with Obama at this point. They show that displeasure in his falling overall popularity; they are increasingly disgusted with his handling of foreign affairs. California Democrat Maxine Waters signaled that the Congressional Black Caucus is frustrated with Obama's failure to address severe problems among its constituents, as are growing numbers of other Americans.
Jonathan Capehart, a Washington Post editorial writer, said people are "angry and anxious," and he's absolutely correct. But they are not yet ready to deny the president quiet time at his venue of choice.
Paul Delaney regularly vacations on Martha's Vineyard.