My friend Tom visits Martha's Vineyard every summer, where his family has owned a cottage for decades. Things have changed since his childhood, as was clear last week when President Obama and candidate Hillary Clinton joined other guests at the Farm Neck Country Club for the 80th birthday of Vernon Jordan. I asked him about that and he laughed. Ever since Bill Clinton started vacationing there when he was president, the island has become more and more popular for in-the-know summer tourists, the Commander-in-Chief's presence giving it a celebrity allure it never had before.
When he visited, Bill Clinton gave the other vacationers exactly what they hoped for. He was a big mingler and loved schmoozing with the common folk, Tom recalls. Locals will tell you about the joyful stir Clinton would cause by showing up at favorite hangouts, like Mad Martha’s ice cream shop in Edgartown. He describes one picture that still hangs on the parlor's wall and seems now like an artifact from another, less serious age:
Even if you didn't share political views (though most people on Martha’s Vineyard do), it was a thrill to get a chance to meet the former President and enjoy his smile. He really liked the banter—this wasn’t a campaign tactic. Encountering the ever-so affable leader, maybe even getting to shake his hand, made the headaches of rolling roadblocks and secret service worth it.
How things have changed.
Now, Tom explains, instead of meeting Bill Clinton jogging on the pathways or holding court with natives in the cafe, he’s been running into vacationers searching for signs of our current president as if they might those of a movie star. It’s less a matter of the president coming out to meet the people as they people getting a slight opportunity to spot the president. They converse with other fans about where the president might go, what he might do, and how they might get a chance for a handshake or friendly word.
“What happens?” I ask him.
He answers: “Good luck with that.”
They may be successful Hollywood people, Ivy League academics, TV personalities, historians, and singer-songwriters, but it takes much more than that to mingle with the President. He just doesn’t get out much. His vacation disrupts the entire area—it’s as if the king and his court and private guard were descending on a village in the provinces—but he keeps his distance.
Unlike President Clinton who loved to press the flesh, President Obama doesn’t enjoy rubbing elbows with the common man. He doesn’t even pretend to be one of the people. When he's with his family on the ultra-exclusive island of Martha's Vineyard, President Obama likes his private time.
Unless he's on the golf course or eating out (he played golf with Jordan before the party), Barack Obama is quite the loner, nestled up in an 8,100 square-foot, $12 million estate on the island's North Shore, paying rent in the tens of thousands of dollars a week.
And when he does emerge for a bike ride, or basket of fried fish, it’s handshakes at a distance, through a rope line or police barricades—and with the suspicious glare of the secret service and state police.
You might get a “good to see you” or “great to be here,” plus a wave before he jumps back into his waiting Suburban.
Part of the change is due to the rise of security after 9/11, of course, but it is clear that the President doesn’t at all feel constrained by the distance.
And yet, Tom says, unlike the aforementioned Clinton—the more distant, aloof and hard-to-get President Obama acts, the more infatuated are his high-profile fans. The more he withdraws, the more they worship and want him. That’s what he’s seen and heard in his many summers on the island. The people who time their vacations with the President are rich and renowned in their own worlds, but his celebrity is not like theirs. He goes on The Daily Show, which makes him one of them, but he also sits down with Putin and deals with Cuba. He battles with Boehner and McConnell, too, and he’s won most of those campaigns.
That makes him so much more than a media star. He’s a TV personality and a culture warrior and a political hero. He’s certainly not the jolly, red-cheeked, friendly fellow on the wall in the ice cream shop. He is the ideal of cultural elite, an idea, an image. They would never admit to watching American Idol, but Obama is their American idol.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.