Vacation starts Clinton trying to take it easy

August 20, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- On his 47th birthday, President Clinton arrived yesterday at Martha's Vineyard, a picturesque, high-tone island hangout with no McDonald's, precious few Bubbas -- but, thank goodness, not one, but two golf courses.

The White House is advertising this as an 11-day stay, although one aide said yesterday that he doubts that Mr. Clinton, a notorious workaholic, will actually manage to stay put that long.

Close friends say that in the past four years they can't remember the president's taking more than a long weekend without mixing a little politics.

But Mr. Clinton seemed to be in the spirit of things. Although Vice President Al Gore gave him a new biography of Thomas Jefferson for his birthday, Mr. Clinton's own selection was definitely beach reading: a Robert Ludlum novel he termed "my cheap-thrills book."

In addition, the president teased an aide, Andrew Friendly, aboard Air Force One for giving him briefing material to read on the trip. "You have more stuff for me?" Mr. Clinton said. "I don't want it. Burn it!"

This is music to his staff's ears. His advisers have been fretting all summer that the image of a president who couldn't relax might seem a little strange to ordinary Americans. Besides, they needed vacations themselves. And so they dangled the possibility of 18 holes of golf daily for nearly two weeks -- and the president bit.

"Welcome to Camp Clinton," said a beaming White House aide, Dawn Alexander, as the plane carrying White House staff and members of the press landed here. Mr. Clinton's own plane was met by 200 enthusiastic people, including a few dozen children from the local Boys and Girls Club. Another 400 to 500 fans who were not allowed on the tarmac of the tiny local airport lined the road, waving to the president, wishing him "Happy birthday!" and waving signs of welcome.

This is not supposed to be the Martha's Vineyard way.

According to Vineyard custom, locals and island regulars know that when they pass Billy Joel or Spike Lee on the street, or spot Dan Aykroyd or Walter Cronkite on their boats, they are not supposed to giggle and point, or whip out their autograph books, or even stare, really. Even a polite nod is considered a little gauche.

"That's the way we are," said Monica Bejin, who works in the communications office at the airport and is a hostess at night at a popular hangout called the Oyster Bar. "In the restaurant, we get our share of stars, and we frown on people approaching their table or anything like that."

Somehow, in the excitement of the Clintons' last-minute vacation at a summer house owned by former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, much of this was left by the wayside. The first family, it would appear, is bigger than Billy Joel and Spike Lee and Dan Aykroyd. Maybe even bigger than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who summers here, too.

This place, in fact, is going bonkers. Although they know it's bad form to talk about it too loudly, every major Clinton campaign donor, Democratic Party bigwig, news media mogul, literary giant who summers here has faxed various invitations to Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, one White House official said.

Mr. Clinton has been formally issued invitations to attend the Dukes County Commission meeting next Wednesday afternoon. Ann Bryant, one of the commissioners, has invited the president to tour the Wampanoag Indian territory here and the first lady to check out the local hospital as part of her quest to know everything about health care.

Even the Steamship Authority, which runs the ferry from the mainland, has got into the act. It generally requires reservations this time of the year six months in advance and seems to take perverse pride in having the most brusque phone manners in New England. But it offered Mr. Clinton a ride free.

Although the Navigator restaurant was throwing a birthday party for Mr. Clinton late last night simply hoping that he'd show up, presidential adviser Vernon Jordan was throwing the official birthday party at his house.

Meanwhile, suspense was building on Martha's Vineyard, which hasn't had a presidential visit that anyone can remember.

President Ulysses S. Grant in 1874, but locals say that usually they get visits from future, past or would-be presidents.

Mr. Clinton was here in 1968 for a anti-war meeting and again in 1986 for the wedding of Lani Guinier -- who is on the island now, too -- but of course he wasn't president then. Richard M. Nixon stayed for a few forlorn hours after he resigned the office. And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy spent his ill-fated summer day in 1969 here, a tragic visit that led to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne and the end, probably, of Mr. Kennedy's chances to be president.

"I think Franklin Roosevelt came here, too, but that was a long time ago," said Alan Counsell, the general manager at the Navigator.

Not everyone, however, has suspended the studied blase attitude of the island.

"I think it's very odd," said Ms. Bejin. "I know he's big, very big, but I've never seen people act this way on the Vineyard. I mean, we see Jackie O among us, and we don't go all ga-ga."

Ms. Onassis, for sure, kept her wits -- and her Martha's Vineyard etiquette.

What did she do when Mr. Clinton arrived?

She went to the airport and flew off the island.

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