Martha’s Vineyard prepares for Mr. Obama, first family, many more

President Obama greets crowds in Oak Bluffs during the first family's vacation last summer. — File photo by Steve Myrick

President Barack Obama and his family are scheduled to arrive on Martha’s Vineyard Thursday, August 18, for their third summer vacation on the Island.

A vacation may be welcome relief for Mr. Obama, who was buffeted in the month of August by a bruising political battle over the federal debt limit.

The first family will once again spend about 10 days at Blue Heron Farm, a luxury retreat on Tisbury Great Pond in Chilmark.

Islanders prepared to host the president, along with hundreds of White House support staff, security personnel, and dozens of reporters, with varying degrees of anticipation.

At the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven, Susan Goldstein was busy this week preparing for the White House press corps. Special communications lines were installed, and Zephrus restaurant chef Ben deForest was planning a red, white, and blue entrée for the dinner menu.

The Mansion House conference rooms serve as the White House briefing center while the president is vacationing on the Island. Communications staffers meet with reporters on most days to answer questions, and outline the day’s events. In previous years, questions ranged from the usual — a mix of pressing political and government issues, to what kinds of books the president is reading, and who is winning at vacation board games.

Television network and cable channels set up anchor desks on the hotel’s roof top cupola deck, prepared to broadcast information around the clock.

“They’re there when I come in early in the morning, and they’re there when I go home late at night,” Ms. Goldstein said. “They use the background. It gives the quintessential Vineyard view, a seaside town with a lot of action, a working seaport.”

Ms. Goldstein said she is amazed at how much electronic equipment the media need to disseminate information from the tiny conference rooms to people around the world.

Reporters, editors, producers and technicians have booked the majority of the Mansion House rooms. Those rooms would probably be booked in the busy month of August even without the media invasion, so the economic impact is not significant. But Ms. Goldstein says it gives the Island the kind of publicity money can’t buy.

“It validates everyone’s choice in picking the Vineyard,” Ms. Goldstein said. “We are the first choice of the first family.”

Flight delays

While Islanders and vacationers sometimes grumble about the occasional blocked intersections and closed streets, the inconvenience to pilots who fly private aircraft to the Martha’s Vineyard Airport is even more cumbersome.

“The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in support of the United States Secret Service and the Office of the President of the United States will be issuing a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) for Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts,” according to a notice issued by the FAA on August 10.

The restrictions mean all aircraft except commercial, military, and law enforcement flights must first land in Hyannis, Providence, or White Plains, New York for security screening. Only after screening can pilots continue to airspace within 10 nautical miles of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. Pilots must schedule the security screening and apply for special permits at least 24 hours in advance. Spur-of-the-moment flights to the Island are out of the question.

The penalties for failing to comply are the first thing listed in the FAA notice, and appear to provide plenty of incentive to follow the rules. Among other sanctions, the notice says, “The United States Government may use deadly force against the airborne aircraft, if it is determined that the aircraft poses an imminent security threat.”

Island retreat

Many presidents have faced criticism while vacationing, but this year, the criticism is especially strident, coming on the heels of a divisive political battle over raising the federal government’s debt ceiling, the downgrade of the country’s credit rating, turmoil in world financial markets, and the tragic combat helicopter crash in Afghanistan that left 30 Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel dead.

In past years, Mr. Obama’s political opponents have injected Martha’s Vineyard into the criticism, portraying the Island as a playground for the prosperous.

Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown declined to offer an opinion on the timing of the president’s vacation.

“I’d refer that to the president,” Sen. Brown said during his Monday appearance on the Island. “Obviously we have work to do. If we get called back, I’m happy to go back.”

Newton mayor Setti Warren, a supporter of Mr. Obama, was on the Vineyard August 13 raising funds and campaigning for the Senate seat Mr. Brown now holds. Two days earlier, he told Boston’s WHDH-TV the president and congress should be working this week.

“I’m very supportive of the President,” Mr. Warren told a news reporter. “I want him to win re-election, I’m going to work hard for him, I think he has great intentions. But every single person needs to get to work, the President, members of Congress and the Senate, right now, to make sure we grow this economy and we get it turned around the way it should be.”

In a letter to the Martha’s Vineyard Times, former Island resident Joanne Philbrick said she had hoped to come back to Martha’s Vineyard this summer to introduce her grandson to the beauty of Island.

“I too had hopes of a trip back to the place I called home for almost 30 years,” Ms. Philbrick, of Norwich, Connecticut, wrote. “Unfortunately I’m retired now, on a fixed income and have lost more money than I care to think about in investments that were for my golden years. Gone now, because of the inability or unwillingness of our elected officials to do the right thing. Federal, state, and local officials do not seem to understand the difficult times that many Americans are going through. So, have a good time Mr. President. Relax, enjoy, have a glass of wine and a nice dinner. Get a good night’s sleep. I certainly won’t.”