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Why Democrats ♥ Martha's Vineyard

By The Editors
August 13, 2009

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Think of all the vacation destinations President Obama might have considered. The Outer Banks in the important new swing state, North Carolina, for example, or the lovely eastern shore of Lake Michigan, in a state that could use some positive attention. Instead, the president and his family are headed to ... Martha's Vineyard, the exclusive haven of the Eastern liberal elite that conservatives tar as an exclusive haven of the Eastern liberal elite.

At a fundraiser on the island two years ago Mr. Obama called it "one of those magical places where people of all different walks of life come together -- where they take each other at face value." Do they?

What makes the island so superior to every place else in America that Democratic presidents are willing "to brave the elitist label by seeking succor there," as Todd S. Purdum says below.

Julia Wells, editor, Vineyard GazetteJill Nelson, authorSkip Finley, radio broadcast executiveAlan M. Dershowitz, Harvard Law SchoolTodd S. Purdum, national editor, Vanity FairCharles J. Ogletree Jr., Harvard Law SchoolJohn Harris, editor in chief, Politico

Republicans Once Slept HereJulia Wells is the editor of the Vineyard Gazette, a 163-year-old weekly newspaper. She lives in West Tisbury.

So why pick Martha's Vineyard? Barack Obama said it best himself, when he was on the island two summers ago. He called it a place where "I can wander around in shorts and not shave in the morning and no one talks about it."

He got it right.

The island is a place where you can be yourself. People don't lock their doors. Children can walk to their town libraries after school unaccompanied by an adult. It is a place where class lines are blurred, where you will find carpenters, electricians and landscapers bumping elbows at cocktail parties with some of the country's wealthiest and most influential people.

The Vineyard was a community long before the word became a cliche. And it's not all rose-covered fences either; isolated from the mainland, with high rates of alcoholism, depression and domestic violence, the island can be a hard place to live in the winter. In summer it draws plenty of wealthy elite, lately specializing in Democrats. But it has not always been a bastion of Democrats.

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Thirty-five years ago when I started working as a reporter here, the island was still a Republican stronghold. Prominent summer residents included members of the Forbes family (who still own nearby Naushon Island). They came to the island for the saltwater fishing and duck hunting, and their homes were for the most part rustic camps or old farmhouses. They also were ardent conservationists and many are responsible for the large parts of the island that remain protected areas today.

The rest of the story is well known. Camps and farmhouses have been torn down and replaced with mansions. Political leanings have shifted, and Republicans are now an endangered species. The island that voted heavily for Nixon over Kennedy in 1960 went even more heavily for Mr. Obama last November. And the Vineyard has become a summer stage for national political fundraisers.

But I think the president wants to vacation on the Vineyard for another reason, one that has no party affiliation. The island remains extraordinarily beautiful and peaceful. Sunsets at Menemsha are rivaled only by sunrises over Chappaquiddick. Beaches are unspoiled. The clean salt water is just the right temperature for swimming. The inky night sky is streaked with late summer galaxies unfettered by light pollution.

The president may be able to get some real down time on the Vineyard. Especially because in Chilmark, where he will stay, his Blackberry probably won't work without a boost from the Army signal corps.

A Rainbow CoalitionJill Nelson is the author of "Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island" and "Let's Get It On," a satirical novel set on Martha's Vineyard.

The red blinker at the intersection of Edgartown-Vineyard Haven and Barnes Roads is the only traffic light on Martha's Vineyard, an island conceit in the face of ever increasing traffic. Another conceit is that we don't overtly fawn over actors, singers or presidents, even though, like cars, at times there are a lot of them here.

The island is Alice's Restaurant for the mind, body and soul: once you find it, you can get anything you want.Martha's Vineyard is big enough to hide out on and small enough to do just about everything you want over a week's vacation. It doesn't hurt that along with the island's physical beauty and diverse communities there's a rainbow coalition of Democrats with money, connections, influence and lots of good will.

Mostly, though, this strange, small island simultaneously offers the magic of solitude and community or a hybrid of the two. It is also, for the Obamas, familiar, no small benefit when you've got just a few days to vacation. They have been to the Vineyard before, have friends here, it's beautiful, simple, there is no need for transition or translation. Martha's Vineyard is Alice's Restaurant for the mind, body and soul: once you find it, you can get anything you want.

Paparazzi UnfriendlySkip Finley, a radio broadcasting executive, is the vice chairman of ICBC Broadcast Holdings. He has spent summers on Martha's Vineyard since 1954, and has been a full-time resident of the Town of Oak Bluffs since 2000.

The August issue of the local glossy monthly Martha's Vineyard Magazine has a feature indicating that nine U.S. presidents have frequented our usually tranquil island, like many celebrities seeking an idyllic retreat. Four (Chester Arthur, Ulysses Grant, Calvin Coolidge and Richard Nixon) were Republicans, John Adams was a Federalist and the other four (Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) Democrats: presidential visits are surprisingly nonpartisan.

However, in the recent presidential election, of the 82 percent who voted on the island, 75 percent went with Barack Obama - so I can't make the case that political moderation runs rampant on what we call The Rock. We are decidedly a Democratic rock.

Because the place is surrounded by a moat of sorts, celebrities feel protected.Martha's Vineyard is surrounded by water, a moat of sorts, which means it's a relatively safe place where celebrities can expect a shy smile or nod instead of an autograph request while enjoying a meal at Atria (full disclosure - Atria is one of my family's favorite restaurants, our daughter is a sometimes manager there, and the owner's daughter is our goddaughter). When celebrities come to the Vineyard, they dress in jeans or khakis and Docksiders or flip-flops, like us, so they can get ice cream and fried clams at Giordano's and catch striped bass, just like us. We like to think we are all celebrities - if only to our families, who recognize that being able to afford the high prices of living here (everything is about 20 percent more expensive than the mainland) is a special treat in these hard economic times.

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But this isn't just any celebrity. Barack Obama may be America's president but for a week we anticipate hosting a king and a queen and two princesses and that moat comes in handy. We're also known for making things difficult for the press - and impossible for the paparazzi.

The Unelite EliteAlan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor, is the author, most recently, of "The Case For Moral Clarity."

The Vineyard was the perfect vacation spot for Bill Clinton, who regarded himself as America's first black president. So it stands to reason that it will be the perfect spot for Barack Obama who is in fact America's first black president. Why? Because it is one of the few integrated vacation communities in the United States. Both presidents have numerous friends in the African-American community, as well as in the Jewish, academic, business and media communities that live together on this small, harmonious island. Most important, the Vineyard is beautiful, filled with interesting people, great beaches, good fishing, excellent golf (I am told) and lots of fun for kids.

Both presidents vacationed "up island," in West Tisbury and Chilmark, which are more isolated and secure than the down-island towns of Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven and Edgartown. But the island is relatively small and nothing is more than 15 or 20 minutes away. Bill Clinton spent a lot of time in Oak Bluffs, which contains a largely black community as well as the most popular golf course.

Martha's Vineyard, unlike Nantucket, is overwhelmingly Democratic, which assures a Democratic president a friendly reception as well as access to major contributors. Because of the presence of a large black community, a visiting president can avoid being labeled elitist, despite the fact that the black community is generally quite affluent.

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All in all, Democratic presidents who vacation in the Vineyard can have fun and feel that they are accomplishing something. They can have isolated time with their family, as Barack Obama seems to prefer, or can socialize with interesting people as Bill Clinton seems to prefer. The only downside, for those of us who, like me, live within a couple of miles of where presidents vacation, are the traffic jams and the omnipresent Secret Service agents. But it's a price worth paying.

No Myrtle Beach PanderingTodd S. Purdum is the national editor of Vanity Fair. He is a former White House correspondent for The New York Times.

There is nothing especially average or ordinary about Barack Obama, and he has made a success of himself by managing not to seem to care, over-much, what other people think about him. He is what he is.

So it's perhaps no surprise that he is taking his vacation in the place that appeals to him and his family, Martha's Vineyard, whatever anyone else might do. He is not the first Democratic president to brave the elitist label by seeking succor there; Bill Clinton famously loved the Vineyard, except for the two summers when his wily pollster, Dick Morris, told him he shouldn't go.

Clinton stewed about the hiking vacations Dick Morris engineered, and happily went back to the Vineyard. In 1995, as Clinton was clawing his way back from the humiliation of his party's midterm defeat in Congress and the collapse of his health care overhaul, Morris, now a Fox News pundit, told Clinton that his polling showed that hikers and campers constituted a high percentage of swing voters, and that it would behoove Clinton to seek their support by supporting their favored pastimes. Clinton was not happy, Morris later wrote, sarcastically demanding "Can I golf?" after Morris noted that his polls had found golf to be a Republican pursuit.

But Clinton dutifully followed Morris's advice, and headed for the mountain trails (and elegant golf courses) of Jackson Hole, Wyo. I had the good luck to accompany him there for two summers as a White House correspondent for The Times, and I have to confess that it would be hard to find a finer spot on earth. Working two hours behind East Coast newspaper deadlines in the pre-Internet age, my colleagues in the White House press corps and I had a marvelous time chronicling the president's not-very-taxing public appearances, then working to get in as many "units" of vigorous outdoor exercise as we could in the remaining hours of daylight before tucking into an expense account dinner of elk or trout with well-lubricated White House aides.

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Jackson is a plenty elite place itself. For decades, it was a favorite retreat for wealthy and WASP-y fly fishermen and skiers from the East, and in more recent times it has become playground for billionaires, who help make Teton County one of the wealthiest places per capita in the country.

But once Clinton was safely re-elected, he went straight back to the Vineyard. I spent one pleasant weekend there years ago and thought it was just fine, though I found it terribly hard to get to (via the ferry from Woods Hole in peak season) and a little dull. As a son of the flat, landlocked Midwest, where summers are horribly hot and hatefully humid, I'd welcome any vacation spot with easy breezes and a body of water. Obama grew up in one of those, of course: Hawaii, and it would be natural for him to place the far, far Western White House somewhere around Honolulu.

But you will perhaps recall that Obama took heat from Beltway savants (most memorably Cokie Roberts, who said he should have gone to Myrtle Beach) when he took a break from the campaign there last year. So he probably figures that he should go where he pleases, and prepare to hear Dick Morris criticize the choice.

All Are WelcomeCharles J. Ogletree Jr. is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. He is the co-editor, most recently, of "When Law Fails: Making Sense of Miscarriages of Justice."

Martha's Vineyard has a rich tradition of providing a space for critical dialogue on race issues and serves as a gathering place for African-Americans dating back to Harlem Renaissance stalwarts like Dorothy West and Adam Clayton Powell. It is unpretentious, and you are just as likely to find someone looking for gainful employment as you are to engage an African-American C.E.O. trying to navigate the tumultuous markets.

For the past 15 years, it has been a place for me to fish for striped bass with family and friends and to enjoy a good conversation about Barack Obama and John McCain.

It is a place where people respect each other and barriers are broken down. Whether you are from South Central Los Angeles, Southeast Washington or South Carolina, you are warmly welcome on the Vineyard.

Couldn't He Go Someplace Cheaper?John Harris is editor in chief of Politico and author of "The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House."

Big picture: the Obamas should obviously vacation wherever they want. From a selfish vantage point, my perspective is admittedly a bit narrow. As a White House reporter in the 1990s, I was part of the group of journalist-friends who were thrilled when Bill Clinton vacationed in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where we filed short stories early in the day and headed to the Tetons for hiking or fishing. We raged when Clinton, safely re-elected, returned to Martha's Vineyard, an island that reporters found precious, claustrophobic, dull and clotted with bad traffic and bad restaurants.

These days, as an editor who assigns a new generation of reporters on vacation with the president and signs their expense accounts, I'd vastly prefer that he find someplace a little more economy-minded.