When an Illinois state senator named Barack Obama stepped on the Vineyard that day in 2004, fresh from his well-received national debut at the Democratic National Convention, the island community not only embraced him — it wrapped him in a bear hug.
People streamed into Edgartown’s Old Whaling Church to see the rising political star, there to attend a forum on race relations. The wooden pews seat 800; 1,000 people showed up.
“The crowd just erupted when he walked out there with me,” said Obama’s former Harvard Law professor, Charles Ogletree, a Vineyard summer resident. “He felt, ‘Well, this is the place for me.’ ”
The Vineyard has indeed become Obama’s “place.” His nearly annual sojourns on the island have coincided with his growth as a politician, from state senator to US senator and presidential candidate to Oval Office occupant. Next month, Obama is scheduled to return again.
Already President Obama has spent more nights on Martha’s Vineyard than almost anywhere else besides the White House and nearby Camp David. His time there surpasses the amount of time he has been at his own home in Chicago, and is rivaled only by Hawaii, where he spends Christmas, according to data compiled by CBS News.
“He obviously fell in love with it,” Ogletree said.
For someone who was born in Hawaii, spent formative years in Indonesia, and went to colleges in California, New York, and Massachusetts before settling in Illinois, Obama appears particularly grounded in the sandy, scrubby island. The community Oak Bluffs is summer home to African-American intellectuals who helped nourish his early career. His family has returned to the same Atlantic Ocean beaches again and again.
Presidents have sought peace on the Vineyard’s shores since Ulysses S. Grant came to Oak Bluffs for three nights in 1874. But the island seems to bring something more personal, more comforting, to President Obama, who is on pace to at least tie Bill Clinton for most presidential Vineyard vacations.
The Vineyard, Obama said once, is “one of those magical places where people of all different walks of life come together. Where they take each other at face value.”
“I can wander around in shorts and not shave in the morning,” he added. “And no one talks about it.”
He made the comments at a fund-raiser in 2007. That was the last year he could pedal his bike around town without attracting much attention. Now, of course, the whole world would notice if his chin sported a vacation stubble.
Relaxation and routine
After his trip in 2004, Obama traveled there again in 2007. He skipped the campaign year of 2008, and then returned for three consecutive summers starting in his first year as president, in 2009.
Like President Clinton, Obama arrived in the White House without a family vacation home (the Bushes had one in Kennebunkport) or a ranch (Reagan had Rancho del Cielo).
Martha’s Vineyard served as a public stage for Clinton, a peripatetic social magnet during his vacations. He sailed and dined with the likes of James Taylor and Sylvester Stallone, and at night was known to pick up a saxophone at parties and jam with the band. He also held the occasional fund-raiser.
Obama’s vacation style is different, perhaps in keeping with his cooler, more insular personality. He spends time with a small, tight-knit group of loyalists and longtime friends. He is private and low key, engaging only occasionally with other politicians or celebrities on the island.
According to a Globe analysis of White House pool reports spanning his three previous Vineyard vacations, he spent a total of 583 hours (measuring both day and night) on the island — almost 80 percent of them cloistered at a rented estate.
“When he’s not working, he plays cards, hits the restaurants and ice cream shops, reads quite a bit and just enjoys time at the rental with his family and friends,” said Bill Burton, a former White House aide who was with Obama during his first presidential vacation, in 2009. “It really is a traditional family vacation, it just happens to have armored cars, Secret Service, and 100 members of the media in tow.”
Obama has not raised money on the island since he became president. He rarely holds any type of activities with donors — much to the dismay of some, who have wanted to throw fund-raisers for him. Occasionally, a contributor gets to join him for a round of golf. In 2010, he played basketball with Robert Wolf, then chief executive of UBS, and his sons.
The family’s adherence to routine is striking: the Obamas always buy fried shrimp from Nancy’s seafood restaurant in Oak Bluffs. Obama routinely takes his two daughters to Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven.Continued...