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08.22.09

A Vacation From the Public Eye

The Obamas' trip to Martha's Vineyard this week will be a press-shy affair—nothing like the Clintons' was, when even the Lewinsky scandal couldn't keep Bill from mugging for the press.

Bill Clinton was a bit of a tart for attention when he stayed as president on Martha’s Vineyard. Rare was the day he was not seen conspicuously jogging, posing with an ice cream, hanging around at the agricultural fair, or leaning out of a golf cart to kiss a baby. Even the Lewinsky scandal couldn’t stop him from glad-handing scores of well-wishers when he arrived at the airport here.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, appears set to greet Vineyarders Sunday with all the vim of J.D. Salinger. The chief executive is scheduled to touch down sometime between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. at Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, where he’ll be transferred to a helicopter and transported to the MV airport, which will be closed to the public and the press.

View Our Gallery of the Obamas on Vacation

From there, he will be whisked down three short roads and one long dirt drive to the self-contained compound of Blue Heron Farm, in the tiny town of Chilmark. No public events are scheduled, and there are plenty of reasons for Mr. Obama not to see any of us for the next seven days. Short of a luge run, Blue Heron Farm has the facilities to provide for any recreational whim. Basketball, foosball, bocce ball—there's even a horseshoe pit. Besides that, it’s magnetically beautiful, with its 19th-century sheds, barns, and carriage houses that look out on Tisbury Great Pond and across to the bucolic pasture of Pond View Farm.

Beyond the property lines, too, Chilmark is well tailored to the hoi polloi avoider. Although the farm has a pool, and its own bit of shoreline, the rental includes a key to the nearby private beach at Quansoo, and the Obamas also have been offered access to the private end of Squibnocket Beach a few miles up South Road. The first family will be able to use the farm’s boats and kayaks in private, too. According to the Secret Service, parts of Tisbury Great Pond will be closed to all except nearby residents.

A White House team will be staying somewhere on the property, should the president fancy a policy gab, as will (more discreetly) Secret Service members. Family friends—Charles Ogletree, Valerie Jarrett and other Vineyard regulars—can come to him. Local restaurants have been contacted for menus, and would be more than happy to deliver.

The requests for public and press to keep their distance, should the first family decide to enter the public realm, have already begun. On Friday, press secretary Robert Gibbs pleaded with the Washington reporters to leave daughters Malia and Sasha alone. (A persistent rumor says that the daughters and their mother are already here, ensconced in a location up-island, but in the spirit of Mr. Gibbs’ entreaty this might as well remain unconfirmed till Sunday.)

Meanwhile, NBC was here yesterday, CBS pitched up weeks ago, Cindy Sheehan will be on hand for some protesting, and there’s talk of an appearance by Geraldo. Barely an hour goes by without my editor at the Vineyard Gazette, Julia Wells, fending off some barrel-scraping big-town reporter.

It’s hard to see what they’re all going to do. What will be the story of the week? The price of arugula at the Obamas’ local farmstand? (Around $8.50 a bag at Fiddlehead Farm, when it’s in stock.)

But Mr. Obama’s will necessarily be a working vacation and outside events will no doubt force him to show his face at some point. Clinton regularly interrupted his vacation for work-related announcements. In 1997 he made a radio address about the deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. In 1998 he authorized cruise-missile strikes on suspected terrorist sites in Afghanistan and on the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, which tragically turned out to be manufacturing medicine rather than nerve gas for al Qaeda. As for Mr. Obama, it’s unlikely he’ll make it through seven days without plugging health-care reform at the very least.

He might also duck out to a fundraiser for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick at the end of the week—perhaps he’ll feel he owes the man who unwittingly contributed language to Obama’s campaign stump speech. And presumably, there will be golf. Overall, though, this week on the Vineyard may be the longest time President Obama has spent out of the public eye since launching his campaign for the White House. And who can blame him? Few people are as unyieldingly gregarious as Bill Clinton, and even he, six months in, wasn't facing wars, rambunctious social protests, and images of himself in a Hitler mustache.

Sam Bungey, a staff reporter and online editor at the Vineyard Gazette, grew up in London, went to university in Dublin and co-founded Mongrel, a monthly magazine about Irish youth culture.