An Open Letter to President Obama: Martha’s Vineyard?

Tom Swick: Contemplating and celebrating travel

07.24.09 | 10:24 AM ET


Dear Mr. President,

Martha’s Vineyard?

Martha’s Washington Elite Camp Vineyard?

I know. People are getting on you about the economy, health care, Afghanistan—the last thing you need is criticism about where you choose to spend your vacation.

But ... Last year at this time you were running for president on a platform of change. We were told that if you got into the White House things would be different. Your candidacy represented something new, something unique, something never before seen.

Bill Clinton vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard. That was two administrations ago. The American people have not forgotten. The residents of Martha’s Vineyard have not forgotten.

But it’s not just an unoriginal choice of a vacation destination—it is a politically unintelligent one. I’m no strategist (though I do have a blog), but it seems to me that, in a country that fancies itself as egalitarian, you don’t want spend your vacation on an exclusive island off the coast of Massachusetts that every summer becomes a kind of tank-top think tank inhabited by people who live inside the Beltway and/or have high level positions at large media corporations. You need to show you’re one of the people, not part of the establishment. (That we know.)

Also, I don’t think the White Sox jacket is going to go over all that well in Oak Bluffs.

Clinton could pull off a vacation on Martha’s Vineyard because, as an Arkansan, he was like an American tourist in Florence. You, Mr. President, know all about islands, and yours are more verdant, sensuous, geographically diverse and culturally interesting than any you’re going to find in New England. Compared to Oahu, Martha’s Vineyard is southern Illinois with surf. And Sasha and Malia are going to find the water awfully cold.

I can understand that you want a vacation by the sea, and that, in these days of foreclosures and unemployment, you don’t want it to look luxurious. But there are many places—on the Eastern Seaboard—that can meet your needs. Here are just three:

Ocean City, NJ—What better way to show your solidarity with the suffering than to spend your summer vacation in New Jersey? Ocean City is a dry town, founded by Methodists, so it’s not the sort of place where you’ll be tempted to sneak a smoke.  Here in “America’s Greatest Family Resort” the four of you can have good wholesome fun walking the boardwalk, playing miniature golf, eating Fralinger’s salt water taffy and searching for the boyhood home of Gay Talese.

Saint Helena Island, SC—It is an inescapable fact that you bring publicity wherever you go. So why not, instead of spotlighting the cocktail circuit in Edgartown, focus attention on the Gullah culture of the coastal southeast? Americans will learn, as your family learns, about the slaves who were brought to these islands from west Africa and, due to their isolation, held on to many of their traditions and developed a unique language and way of life. Not only will you be educated, you’ll be fed some of the finest food in the United States. I mean, why settle for clam chowder when you can have Frogmore Stew?

Hollywood, FL—During your campaign, much was made of your ins with Hollywood. Here’s your chance to play a little joke on your detractors. Florida’s Hollywood is as far in style from California’s as it is in miles. Situated between Miami Beach and Palm Beach, it has neither glitz nor riches. (Making it an ideal destination for a recession president.) What it does have is a diverse population of residents and visitors—French Canadians, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics, drifters—and something of a bohemian feel. The girls can work on their Spanish and you can practice diplomacy at the Russian supermarket and the Middle Eastern restaurants. And for all the people who still think you’re too young and inexperienced for the job, nothing will demonstrate that you can take the heat like an August vacation in Florida.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

21 Comments for An Open Letter to President Obama: Martha’s Vineyard? 07.24.09 | 11:40 AM ET

Great post and suggestions for President Obama.  Politicians and celebs usually head to Martha’s Vineyard.  I agree that it’s unoriginal.  It would have been refreshing to see the President at Ocean City, NJ or Saint Helena Island, SC.  These would have set him apart from the “same old, same old” when it comes to politicians and their vacations.

Lindsey 07.24.09 | 11:54 AM ET

Feeding the seaguls on the ferry was my favorite thing to do when I was five! Martha’s Vineyard is historic.  I grew up going to the beach when you could still soak in the clay pools!

Julie 07.24.09 | 8:27 PM ET

This is a great post, but just so you know…we’re not all rich and famous on Martha’s Vineyard. There’s a huge issue with affordable housing, fisherman are losing their livelihood because of gov regulations that favor the ‘big guys’, the construction industry (and the electricians and plumbers that go with it) are all suffering hugely b/c of the recession and the small farmers that this island was built around (save the whalers) are in serious trouble.

Yes, the ‘summer crew’ is big and bad - but there are real people living on this island (15,000 year rounders) that represent what the rest of the the U.S., hell, the world, are going through right now.

It’s okay that he’s coming - and it will help our little slice of the country by stimulating our economy during these tough times.

Tom from MA 07.27.09 | 9:35 PM ET

Kenya is an island?

Robyn 07.28.09 | 9:52 PM ET

This article lacks a lot of perspective and consideration.  For one, don’t assume that all of the people that go to Martha’s Vineyard or Oak Bluffs in particular are rich.  I’ve been going there my entire life and am certainly not rich.  My aunt lives and works on the island and is also not rich or pretentious.

In terms of cultural diversity, did the author consider the long history of African-Americans on the island?  While the scene has been bought out to a degree over the years, it remains a place where educated Black people around Obama’s age return to year after year to relive good times of their youth.  In fact, the house in the picture, I’m pretty sure is on Tuckernuck St. in Oak Bluffs, about a block from the Inkwell Beach, and is owned by a wealthy African-American family.  Oak Bluffs and Martha’s Vineyard is an excellent place to expose Sasha and Malia a proud legacy of Black affluence.

One last reason why Obama might be interested in going to Martha’s Vineyard is the fact that both he and Michelle went to Harvard University for Law school and have connections in Massachusetts.  Law professor Dr. Ogletree was there last summer speaking kind words about their time at Harvard and Obama’s overwhelming intelligence.

Obama’s coming to Martha’s Vineyard is not like the Clintons’.  Now I have to get up to the island this summer.

Sabina 07.29.09 | 9:27 PM ET

Although not all of Martha’s Vineyard is dripping diamonds by any means, your point is well taken.  Most people around the country and the world think of it as a private club paradise available only to the wealthy.  It really doesn’t look so great for him to be heading there.  He really could be raking in the criticism, though, if he’d chosen the Vineyard’s uber-elite island neighbor, Nantucket.

Ann Fowler 07.29.09 | 11:09 PM ET

Why don’t you let Obama pick your vacation spots? Many black entertainers go their every year, would you criticize them too?

Elder Carlie Towne 07.30.09 | 5:05 PM ET


Thank you for letting the world know about my people the Gullah./Geechees . Yes, I pray that President Obama will come to the Gullah/Geechee Nation which goes from Cape Fear, North Carolina to Jacksonville, Florida and 30 t o 35 mile inland. It would be a win win.

President Obama will probably visit at sometime the 1st Lady is a descendant of Gullah/Geechee He campaigned   on the porches of Charleston, South Carolina.

Wi da binya dem da cumya. We have been here and they will come.

helen richards 07.31.09 | 11:30 AM ET

great article! my viewpoint exactly. as an additional vacation spot, why not the Upper peninsula of Michigan where the economy has been particularly hard hit.

helen richards 07.31.09 | 11:33 AM ET

great article. my viewpoint exactly. as an additional vacation spot, how about the upper peninsula of michigan ( close to Detroit) which is a fabulous low key summer spot and the economy could use the boost of a presidential visit. martha’s vineyard is just too elitest for me.

Trey 08.03.09 | 9:22 PM ET

Good points. The President probaly needs another vacation.—his last one was about two weeks ago Some reports say he is going to spend about $50,000 a week to rent his house on Martha’s Vineyard.  Who’s paying for this? Not taxpayers I hope.

Marlene Affeld 08.06.09 | 9:46 AM ET

Is there anywhere in America that the President could vacation for which he would not draw criticism? Surely we have more impprtant things to worry about.

Jean 08.07.09 | 9:33 PM ET

Rumor is that he may be attending a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard.

MrsJones 08.15.09 | 12:08 PM ET

While your point is well taken that there are many other great places to visit in the US—which I am quite certain the Obama’s know—I think you need to step outside your own point of view a little bit.  My family and friends have made this an annual retreat and we are not rich.  We are middle-class educated African-Americans who enjoy the fact that our children can see numerous families like us in a safe place where we can relax.  We (along with a LOT of people on the island) are excited about the choice.    You go visit those places and have great time—let the Obama’s (and anyone else) vacation where they choose.

Besides, its not the first time he’s been here with his family.

Phoebe 08.21.09 | 11:23 AM ET

NJ? you pick NJ as the alturnative?
Marthas Vineyard is a beautiful place and although many rich and famous come here in the summer, a large majority live here year round and are regular americans by the definition. Vineyarders are always excited to share their home with presidents and celebs, but often times we dont see them, which i believe is why it is such a popular destination. Why would he want to spend his vacation somewhere where the economy is struggling? then its not a vacation. There are also strong African American ties to Martha’s Vineyard which I’m sure he would appreciate. All and all Marthas Vineyard is a laid back community which he obviously enjoyed before. Up island and down island are very different, and while im sure Obama will venture to Edgartown, Chilmark is a completly different state of mind from the preppy cocktail parties.

Oh, and if you do ever happen to go to Chilmark, you would never guess its one of the richest towns, which is probably why its so well liked.

Christopher 08.23.09 | 4:49 PM ET

Just to add a different note here: one thing people seem to be forgetting is the Secret Service component of Obama’s vacation. In the end, no matter where he wants to go, they get the final say; if they don’t think they can adequately protect him and his family, then it’s off the list. A community like Martha’s Vineyard, and the location where the Obama’s are staying—with the celebrities, and wealthy who have long made their place to get away from it all—likely already has much in the way of needed security logistics. Consequently, The Obamas’ vacation is not too likely to disrupt the lives of the local community they way it would if were to vacation in a locale with a more common touch. Think about the inconvenience to people living and vacationing in Ocean City if the President and retinue were to move in for 10 days. My bet is there would be a lot of unhappy, disgruntled people wished he and his family had gone somewhere else.

Given that his protection is a matter of law; given his responsibilities that continue vacation or not; and given the support staff a modern presidency requires when away from the White House for even a few days. I don’t imagine there many places Obama can vacation. Perhaps Martha’s Vineyard is too elitist for some, maybe other choice could have been made, but realize a sitting President can’t just vacation wherever he wants—numerous other considerations come with that choice.

hello 08.23.09 | 4:59 PM ET

Wow. Do your research. Obama is staying in Chilmark not Oak Bluffs.
And no, Tom, Kenya is not an island. But Hawaii is an archipelago.

jen 08.24.09 | 5:34 PM ET

Southern Illinois happens to be quite lovely.

Dominique Callimanopulos 08.24.09 | 11:43 PM ET

We are here in Chilmark this week as well, and have been coming for 25 + years. The place is incredibly low key and understated—and still boasts one of the most beautiful stretches of beach in the world.  All kinds of people are here, but they share a love for the island’s unspoiled beauty and nature.  I have travelled all over the world, but I still come back here every summer, not for any social cachet, but for the spiritual renewal this place offers. I hope the President and his family leave MV uplifted and restored, and ready to face their many challenges and responsibilities anew!

M. Brookes 08.25.09 | 3:49 PM ET

Good article; there were many great alternatives for this president, by which he could have demonstrated his concern for the people.  Camp David would have been free and he might even have gone to church.  It was his choice, but the American taxpayer still has to pay for the extensive retinue of secret service and other extravagent attendants for Mrs. Obama.  I think by the choice they made, it speaks loudly of his class struggle and identity crisis.  The choice certainly does not thrill the hearts of Americans living on the streets or tent cities; they’ll hardly notice.  The average American could care less what he reads or what he does in his leisure time.  Most average folk will work one year for one week’s paid vacation; but he takes his posh one after only six months Considering the extravagance of it all, he chose to be a status seeker rather than a man of the people.

Jill put up a blog 08.26.09 | 5:47 PM ET

If he were renting an entire island off the coast of wherever, and paying 2.5 million for the week or in Chicago renting an entire floor of the most expensive hotel there, that is something you might scratch your head about as far as appropriateness $$$$. Martha’s Vineyard is a part of the President’s perks and it is historical. He is historical. Why not go there? But, really - who cares? Hope they are having a fantastic time.

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