Obama on Martha's Vineyard: Do Presidents Ruin Cherished Vacation Spots?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Steven Senne / AP

President Barack Obama, left, and his daughter Malia, front right, ride bicycles along a path through Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, on the island of Martha's Vineyard, on Aug. 27, 2010.

Last August, with all the anticipation of a vacation week with my family ahead, I drove down the off-ramp of the ferry in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts ... smack into a massive traffic jam. A Secret Service agent had been spotted casing Sweet E's cupcake store, causing a flash mob to coalesce in anticipation of the arrival of President Obama and his family. Sweet E's cupcakes? Couldn't they at least have picked Murdick's Fudge or Mad Martha's Ice Cream instead of a trendy new cupcake shop?

It turned out to be a rumor — the Obamas were actually heading to Nancy's, a restaurant in Oak Bluffs that's been around since the 1960s — but the episode gave us a taste of what was to come. For the rest of the week, loud Coast Guard choppers flew overhead every two hours or so, completing their round-the-island circuit. A horseback-riding excursion for the kids turned into a long-distance gawking session (the stables overlooked Blue Heron Farm, the estate on Tisbury Great Pond that the Obamas are renting again this year.) My sister-in-law went out jogging and got dusted by Obama's motorcade on its way to Mink Meadows, a semiprivate golf course. It was exciting — and a little bit sad, because the last time Martha's Vineyard got so much presidential attention, it just about ruined the place.

I have no special claim to the island. I'm not a homeowner; my ancestors didn't till its soil. But during the 1970s, my grandparents retired there, and I had the good fortune of spending my childhood summers through my teen years under their roof. Famous people visited the island back then too, but they traveled among us, not behind tinted glass: John Belushi sitting at a diner in the airport, waiting for the fog to lift; actress Ruth Gordon (the Edgartown movie house played Harold & Maude every year in her honor) walking down the street in her signature sneakers. One summer, when I was working in a souvenir shop (the Vineyard has long attracted — and welcomed — tourists), I sold a T-shirt to Rose Kennedy, who paid with a personal check. The biggest excitement was the arrival of Steven Spielberg to film a couple of scenes for Jaws. Then my grandfather died, and my grandmother sold the house. Bill Clinton was elected and spent seven summers there, staying in real-estate developer Richard Friedman's house, having dinner parties with Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, sailing with Walter Cronkite. By the time I returned to the island as an adult, things had markedly changed.

The Black Dog, an unremarkable canteen where one of my brothers had worked as a prep cook, had turned into a multilocation department store selling every sort of sweatshirt, umbrella, coffee mug and visor emblazoned with that ubiquitous Labrador. Clinton was photographed wearing a Black Dog T-shirt and, as it was later discovered thanks to Ken Starr, gave one to Monica Lewinsky. I couldn't bring myself to return to Edgartown, the twee little village where we used to roam by bike, not because I couldn't bear how overrun it had become but because vehicles were no longer even allowed down the main street because of congestion. A Clintonized version of this island off the coast of Massachusetts had been broadcast to the world, and doubling back on itself, Martha's Vineyard became "Martha's Vineyard." In 1998, two bankers from New York decided to make and sell neckties that "represent the finer places and things life has to offer"; they named their company Vineyard Vines. (The company is actually based in Stamford, Conn.)

Granted, much of the change that I'm lamenting might have happened without Clinton. Watching our childhood haunts — whether in Akron, Ohio, or Hokoben, New Jersey — get transformed by development and lose their singularity is part of the modern condition, as Melissa Holbrook Pierson describes in her book The Place You Love Is Gone. Martha's Vineyard was never my home, but it's the place that holds my happiest memories. Because of that, I cannot stay away, which I suppose makes me a bit of a hypocrite. This year I moved our vacation up by a week — not out of fear of presidential overlap but because Labor Day falls earlier and school starts sooner. And wouldn't you know it, the Obamas did too. I just hope we don't pick the same day to go to the Tisbury Fair.