Obama Beat


Last year, the rumors that the Obama Family would vacation on Martha’s Vineyard began in March and were not confirmed until late July. As the media tide rose along with inflated descriptions of the Island and Islanders, The Times launched the “Obama Beat,” a weekly gleaning of news reports about the presidential vacation.

In 2009, his first year in office, the press coverage was mostly fawning, although some critics questioned whether the Vineyard was an appropriate choice (called Hollywood East, didn’t you know) in the midst of a recession. The focus was mostly the vacation itinerary.

This week, The Times resurrects the Obama beat.

Last year, one British news outlet wondered whether the first family would stay in Oak Bluffs, “the traditional resort for the majority of the black population.”

The Sunday Cape Cod Times described the attributes of Martha’s Vineyard: “a spectacularly beautiful island inhabited by casual natives accustomed to famous people walking down the street.”

For dimwitted Islanders faced with inflowing celebrities and unsure how to behave, a Vineyard Gazette editorial provided instruction: “The Island respects everyone’s right to privacy, and that is as it should be. And we would do well to remember this principle when President Obama and his family reopen the summer White House on the Island next month.”

What a difference a year and a Gulf oil spill make. The first report of a Vineyard vacation did not reach The Times news desk until July 15.

Under the headline, “President Obama to summer like it’s 2009,” Boston Herald gossip columnists Gayle Fee and Laura relied on Island sources

“Our spies on The Rock report that the first family will return to Chilmark’s Blue Heron Farm for about 10 days in August … the big buzz on the Rock is that the commander-in-chief, Michelle and the girls, Sasha and Malia, will return to The Rock about Aug. 19. And why wouldn’t they?

“The fab farm where the first family beaches themselves has a basketball court for Barry, and the prez was greeted like a rock star everywhere he went. And with his approval ratings at an all-time low, a little love from the locals can’t hurt.”

Islanders may be feeling the love, according to The Inside Track, but few of the 162 comments the report generated included kind words.

A commenter identified as “Beagle” had this to say about the Vineyard and its better known residents: “Oh!!! the beautiful people are awaiting his arrival, i.e., Diane Sawyer & Mike Nichols, Carly Simon, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and family, folks in their boats and planes from Nantucket, i.e., Chris (tingle up my leg) Matthews, John and ‘Lovey’ Kerry, etc., etc. to party and hobnob with his Majesty. If he went to the Gulf to vacation, he would get an earful from those businesses out of business, and those fishermen still awaiting their claim checks.”

Politics Daily, an AOL news web site, hedged its vacation bet with the headline, “First Family Likely Heading to Martha’s Vineyard Again for Vacation.”

In a story posted July 15, correspondent Lynn Sweet highlighted the contradiction between presidential comments and plans.

“In the wake of the BP oil spill, both President Obama and First Lady Michelle have made separate trips to Florida to encourage tourists to visit — with Mrs. Obama delivering a speech Tuesday on a still pristine beach,” Ms. Sweet wrote. “For their own vacations, the First Family is heading to Maine this weekend and likely will return to Martha’s Vineyard for an extended stay in August.”

As for confirmation, there was this. “While the August vacation plans have not been announced, West Wing sources told Politics Daily the family enjoyed their visit last August to Martha’s Vineyard and are very likely to return again this summer.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was asked why the First Family was not vacationing in the Sunshine State after encouraging other people to go. That question was ducked quicker than a limbo bar at a beach party.

The Cape Cod Times also hedged its bet with the headline, “Obamas likely to return to Vineyard.”

Aaron Gouveia reported on July 16 that, “Although residents and business owners on Martha’s Vineyard have been aware of the rumors for months, no one the Times contacted yesterday knew whether the Obama family was coming back for sure.”

Mr. Gouveia touched all the bases but scored no comments from Chilmark Town Hall or Wallace and Co. Sotheby’s International Realty, the company that leased the Blue Heron property from owners Billy and Molly Van Devender.

In a story published July 16, “Shifting Politics in Presidents’ Vacations,” reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg examined the political calculus of presidential vacations.

She noted that after spending a long weekend in Bar Harbor, Maine the President and his family are planning a longer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard.

“But what sounds like a much-needed family escape from the literal and political heat of Washington to some sounds like hypocrisy to others, given recent statements by both the president and first lady urging Americans to spend their vacation time and money along the shores of the oil-stricken Gulf of Mexico,” she wrote.

Ms. Stolberg said, “A trip to the Gulf Coast, of course, would hardly be much of a vacation for Mr. Obama, whose political fortunes were undercut by the spill. But the flap does point up how politically fraught the modern presidential vacation — or, for that matter, presidential leisure time in general — has become.”

The Times reported that Mr. Obama is arranging his summer travel around his daughter Malia’s month at sleep-away camp and chose Martha’s Vineyard because the family vacationed there before he became president, press secretary Gibbs said.

In a story published July 16, Julie Mason, White House correspondent for the Washington Examiner, took a more sympathetic tack. Under the headline, “Obama has a hard time taking it easy,” she wrote. “The president, who expected to head back to Martha’s Vineyard for at least a week, does not know how to take a vacation.

“Few appear to need a vacation more than President Obama — but fewer still seem as chronically reluctant to get away and unplug,” Ms. Mason wrote.

“Bush spent all or part of 490 days at his Texas ranch, and 487 days at Camp David, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News, a tabulator of presidential data,” Ms. Mason reported.

“In two years, Obama has spent 33 days on vacation, and played an estimated 40 rounds of golf.”

And for good measure, she sought insight from a White House press flack.

“I don’t think that there’s a person in this country that doesn’t think that their president ought to have a little time to clear his mind,” said Bill Burton, White House deputy press secretary.

Burton added that Obama’s time off “probably does us all good as American citizens.”