Nice to Meet You, Mr. President

Martha's Vineyard native Julia Rappaport reflects on the Clintons, the Obamas, and growing up in the shadow of Marine One.
julia rappaport president clinton marthas vineyard

The author and President Clinton shake hands on the Vineyard. / Photograph Courtesy of the Author

It was a warm, early September morning in 1993 when, at nine years old, I met my first president.

Instead of basking in summer’s last hurrah on this Labor Day weekend, I was packed into my elementary school gym on Martha’s Vineyard, where I grew up year round. With me were my parents and grandmother, not to mention hundreds of other locals, all waiting to hear Bill Clinton record a national radio broadcast during his first presidential vacation to the island.

After Clinton spoke from the same stage on which I’d performed in countless violin concerts, I lined up to meet him. He took my tiny hand in his huge one, shook it, and asked if I had any questions for him.

“Yes,” I said. “Will you be buying a house here?”

Little did I know that, 16 years later, I would be back on the island as a reporter for the Boston Herald, waiting to ask questions of yet another vacationing president—this time during Barack Obama’s first Vineyard getaway.

Having the leader of the free world choose your hometown as a vacation spot is a funny thing. There’s a sense of honor in knowing that the presidential chopper is flying over your home and that people you know are cooking for the first family in their restaurants. At the same time, it’s a huge pain in the ass—especially in a place like the Vineyard, about 96 square miles, with no stoplights or speed limits over 45 and a year-round population of roughly 16,000.

We would groan when, during what has come to be known as “the Clinton years,” traffic would snarl on our rural roads as the presidential motorcade passed. There are similar frustrations when Obama comes to town. For the duration of his eight-day visit in 2013, the White House closed a portion of the road—one of only three main thoroughfares in my hometown of Chilmark—by his rental property, sending drivers on lengthy detours to bypass it. “That’s ridiculous!” I protested to my dad by phone when I heard the news. “Sure,” he replied, “but the president is staying on our road.”

There’s “a mixture of pride and a cheerful sort of predictable grumbling,” Julia Wells, longtime editor of the weekly Vineyard Gazette newspaper, tells me. “When they closed the road, oh my goodness, the way people talked you would have thought the world was coming to an end! People complain, but would they want the president to go to Nantucket? Certainly not.”

While the grumbling has remained the same over the years, there are many differences between the Clinton and Obama days.

Clinton vacationed like a man of the people—jogging downtown, party hopping, even hosting a get-together for the press pool. Obama, on the other hand, is quieter and more family-focused. He goes on date night with his wife, gets the same fried clams every year, and visits with the same friends. It’s touching, in a way. He vacations like the rest of us. “Clinton, his batteries are recharged by people, whereas I think the Obamas take a more traditional approach to vacation—they recharge by escaping,” says Timothy Sweet, general manager of Farm Neck Golf Club, where both presidents have hit the links.

Of course, the Obamas are also visiting in a different era than the Clintons. “Conservatively, I would say that security has tripled,” Sweet says. “There’s a lot more carefulness now, which all stems from 9/11.” The other big change? “No one had cell phones then,” says Mary Kenworth, who, with her husband, Jackson, owns State Road, an Obama dining destination, and used to run the Sweet Life Café, a former Clinton favorite. “There’s more of a paparazzi feeling now. Everyone has a camera because everyone has a cell phone.”

And yet even as rubbernecking mainlanders angle for a peek inside the president’s retreat, we islanders continue to honor the desire to spend precious downtime quietly with those we love. “The Vineyard has long been respectful of famous people, presidents included,” Wells says. “That’s why people like to come here. They can be left alone to enjoy the things about the island that we all enjoy.”

And that’s precisely what my family and I did upon meeting Clinton for the first time. After shaking hands with the president, we drove back home to pack up tuna sandwiches and sunscreen, beach toys and books, and spent the rest of our day by the water. It was the last weekend of summer, after all, and we had to savor every last minute of it.

 

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