Obama on the Vineyard

Follow the leader
By VANESSA CZARNECKI  |  September 1, 2010

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S vacation on Martha’s Vineyard might have gotten mixed reviews in the press, but locals welcomed the First Family with open arms.

The most powerful man in the world touched down last week on Martha's Vineyard's grass-stamped airport, and quietly set to work enjoying the pursuits late-summer vacations require. Even so, everyone knew he was here; they had been talking about it for weeks.

Homeowners hung welcome signs and shopkeepers put out presidential wares: I VACATIONED WITH OBAMA and BOBAMA THE DOG T-shirts, mostly, the latter a take on the island's ubiquitous Black Dog logo. In the busy town of Oak Bluffs, tourists sipped Obamaritas and dined on Barack-o-Guaco and Commander-in-Chief gelato. An old man sat in a rocking chair on his front porch cradling a framed photo, waiting in vain for a glimpse of the president, at best likely catching a glimpse of a motorcade or a throng of reporters instead.

Barack Obama traveled with his wife, Michelle, their two daughters and dog, a skeleton White House staff, and a gaggle of hotshot journalists, but only the last group would make their presence known. Prior to their arrival many of these reporters had busied themselves with updates on Obama's all-time-low approval ratings, his comments on a Ground Zero mosque, renewed speculation over whether he is Muslim, and endless rants over his bad PR choice of a vacation spot that has been deemed a resort community and a Democratic playground. Here, their job was to extend that soap opera, to toggle around the island by bus and detail the president's every move. But instead, for 10 days they spent hours waiting for a secondhand report that the president was golfing, or on a bike ride, or playing board games with his family — tidbits of information they were rarely allowed close enough to witness, but would feed to the hungry maw of 24-hour journalism.

"This will probably get me fired, but I know that Valerie [Jarrett, an adviser to Obama] did not do well in Scrabble against the president," reported deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton on August 24. The headline on the Martha's Vineyard Times' Web site that day: NERF FOOTBALL IN THE NEWS.

Whereas Bill Clinton, a frequent visitor to the island, glad-handed his way through town centers, Obama made few overtures to the public. He was berated both for spending too many American tax dollars on lavish indulgences and for not spending enough pocket change in the shops to boost their bottom line. Some speculated he had altered his vacation plans to dampen a political firestorm. Approached by a gaggle of reporters following a lunch out, the president replied: "C'mon, guys, I'm buying shrimp."

With little to do, Fox News White House reporter Major Garrett paced the deck of the journalists' command center, a Vineyard Haven inn on the corner of Main Street. He checked his reflection in the lens of a camera that had been turned off, his back to a row of mom-and-pop shops — the sort of halcyon American street that makes Glenn Beck weep. He had been tweeting all week, posting political news from the outside world. He waited for an update, for a reason to turn the camera on. He contributed to an article about how Obama had chosen to vacation on an elite island insulated from the housing crisis that his policies had failed to help. And then he and the crush of reporters packed up and left. The president flew to New Orleans; the playground, barely played on, emptied out.

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