In Search of Obama

Text messages relayed possible sightings, and much of Martha’s Vineyard was atwitter. When POTUS was on the Island last August, many tried to catch a glimpse of him, including this intrepid Vineyard Gazette reporter.

Lighthouse keeper Joan LeLacheur, center, lucked out, giving a tour of the Gay Head Light and getting in a family photo.
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It was certainly a thrilling prospect, to be reporting on the leader of the free world instead of candidates for a town snowplow operator. As rumors of a presidential vacation first began to swirl on the Island last year, a mid-winter cold snap was in the forecast and I was covering Aquinnah’s search for someone who knew how to drive the town plow. Aquinnah finally scored a plowman, but the Obama rumor stayed in the news – providing months of intrigue to brighten up a stark Vineyard spring. Looking back though, when it comes to the Obamas and Martha’s Vineyard, the pleasure was all in the anticipation.

Nailing down the details of a rumored First Visit meant tracking and interpreting the inscrutable behavior of the Secret Service, from hypothetical hotel reservations to enigmatic menu requests at Island restaurants. There was endless debate over locations. Some scuttlebutt surfaced that the Obamas would stay in Oak Bluffs where they had friends, while others had it that the First Family would be ensconced on the Kennedy property in Aquinnah. Still, there was no actual proof they were coming at all. Even when it became obvious that the Island was being prepped for President Obama’s arrival, officials were tantalizingly tight-lipped.

Searching for confirmation one morning, I knocked on a Winnebago Sightseer stationed in the parking lot of the Oak Bluffs Beach Club. The door swung open to reveal a rhino-jawed man wearing an impossibly starched shirt. “You’re who?” he growled, and I sputtered out my theory that he and his curtain-twitching pals were staking out the Island in preparation for a presidential visit.

“We’re with the government,” he conceded, allowing they were here to assist with the arrival of a Very Important Person; he couldn’t say more. He offered no information on how he kept his clothes crease-free under such cramped conditions, but snatched the piece of paper with my contact info, his narrowed eyes scanning the harbor for imminent threats one last time before he pulled the door closed between us.

Once the vacation was indeed, finally, officially confirmed, there was much to report, including details about the First Digs, a twenty-seven-acre gentleman’s farm off South Road in Chilmark, graciously leased for tens of thousands of dollars to the Obamas by William Van Devender, Mississippi’s former Republican party finance director. A few days ahead of the First Family’s arrival, the world descended on the Vineyard. An anti-war contingent arrived to protest, countless celebrities showed up, and Geraldo was broadcasting live for Fox News from a yacht in Edgartown harbor.

But now that the president was actually here, all that excitement began to seem a little ridiculous.

The presidential helicopters touched down Sunday at Martha’s Vineyard Airport – closed to the public – and the First Family was swept off to their vacation farm in a blacked-out motorcade, past processions of well-wishers waving madly at their own reflections.

The Secret Service cordoned off the land surrounding the property and even a section of Tisbury Great Pond, stationing lethal-looking security personnel at the entrance to the half-mile-long driveway. President Obama spent most of his vacation ensconced within the compound, stubbornly using the time to relax with his family. When he did stray, it was generally to play golf.

So the White House press corps, whose job is to follow the president full time, milled about in a tick-laden field near the farm or sat penned inside their press van. The TV crews struggled in vain for snatches of First Family footage, while the newspaper contingent sent out desultory updates on the state of the van’s malfunctioning toilet.

Throughout the week, the attendant press, tourists, and fans gathered in excited throngs on the rare occasions the Obamas did venture out: dinner one night at the Sweet Life Café in Oak Bluffs, a lunchtime takeaway of fried scallops and clam strips from Nancy’s Snack Bar on the harbor. There was a trip down the road from the farm to Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury for some ice cream. The Obamas also took a bike ride along Lobsterville Beach and checked out the Aquinnah Lighthouse, though both locations were closed to the public at the time.

But news of Senator Edward Kennedy’s death on Wednesday cast a pall over the vacation and made chances of an unscripted moment with the president seem even more remote. Michelle and Barack’s second-to-last vacation day was spent in Boston at Kennedy’s funeral.

One balmy evening, though, an unscheduled departure from the ultra-secluded up-Island vacation home looked like it might hold some potential:

I had stumbled upon the presidential motorcade making its way into Oak Bluffs (with its flashing motorcycles, whooping sirens, and a dozen or so sleek black SUVs pelting along within feet of each other – all hard to miss on the Island’s little back roads). I cranked into gear, barely keeping pace in my worn-out Subaru.

My pulse quickened as the herd of vehicles veered onto the quiet, coastal East Chop Drive. The motorcade powered around the Chop, sunset bouncing off its impenetrable windows, and stopped near the entrance to the Oak Bluffs Beach Club, engines idling.

The anticipation was killing me. As I sat in my rust bucket, waiting for whatever might happen next – perhaps the First Couple would decide to go for a spontaneous stroll and invite me to act as their local guide? – a Massachusetts state trooper snapped me out of my reverie. “Sir,” the officer barked, his extremely muscular, spandexed thighs filling the window of my driver-side door. “We’ll be moving out in a few minutes, and I’ll have to ask about the out-of-date inspection sticker on your vehicle.”

The stop turned out to be a quiet drink for the Obamas at the home of their friend Valerie Jarrett. The car, though it had outlasted Aquinnah blizzards and the attention of the year-round Island police, would soon be impounded and, a few weeks later, finally conk out forever. Clearly neither of us was designed for motorcade chasing.