Clinton Relaxes Amid His Natural Constituency

PETER A. JAY

August 29, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Martha's Vineyard, Mass. -- In retrospect, it's hard to see why everyone here was so startled by the recent presidential visit. It was as inevitable as the rising of the tide.

Bill Clinton and this sandy, scrubby island, prime habitat for celebrities in their summer plumage, were made for each other. Sooner or later, he had to come here.

This is sacred ground for the Sixties People, and has been so since before they first learned to inhale. Mr. Clinton, as a lad, didn't come here to practice being Clean for Gene McCarthy in '68 just by chance. He and his fellow pilgrims came to the Vineyard because in that culture it had already become a holy place.

James Taylor and Carly Simon summered here as children. The drug-soaked remains of John Belushi are buried here. Here Edward Kennedy took his famous swim. Here the media grand dragons annually congregate, to cocktail with one another and wonder why the rest of the country considers them such a turnoff.

Walter Cronkite. Anthony Lewis. Mike Wallace. Art Buchwald. The doings of these and other mediosities are regularly chronicled in the local press, enhanced with the obligatory piffle about how much they value their privacy.

Even 25 years ago, Martha's Vineyard was emerging as a seasonal roosting place not only for journalists but for a shiny collection of eminences from the worlds of literature, entertainment, academia and politics.

It goes without saying that the perspective of this group is not quintessentially Middle American. A Reagan voter would seem as out of place among the summer elite here as Sister Boom-Boom at a Rotary Club luncheon.

As is always true in rigidly homogeneous societies, there is little intellectual ferment -- although convocations, seminars and artistic exhibitions are as much a part of the summer scene as sunglasses and sunburn.

What unites the vacationing poohbahs, and helps make them especially warm and welcoming to the First Couple, is the shared conviction that all the problems of the nation could be resolved if the Right People were simply given the authority and the money to whip the rest of us into shape.

The island gave Mr. Clinton 55 percent in the last election, more than he received almost anywhere else.

If the election had been held in August instead of November, with non-residents being allowed to vote, he would have carried it in a landslide. These are his people, if anyone is.

If the Clinton family had gone for its holiday to a ranch in the West, as was reportedly considered, the president would quite possibly have felt lonely and out of place.

Had he tired of riding the range and moseyed into town, some hard-bitten local would surely have confronted him over gun control, grazing fees, land-use policy or miscellaneous federal infringements on individual liberty.

On all those issues, Mr. Clinton long ago wrote off the Western vote. So naturally, while enjoying a well-deserved vacation, he wouldn't want to risk finding himself with an angry cowboy in his face.

Far better to dine with Kay Graham or Sheldon Hackney and discuss something non-controversial -- such as the need for an ++ androgynous military or more federal funding for the arts.

And why not, after all? A vacation should be for relaxation, not ideological calisthenics. Gerald Ford understood that; he vacationed amid golfing tycoons. Ronald Reagan understood it, too. If he had come to Martha's Vineyard as president, he would have been about as comfortable as Bill Clinton at a Marine boot camp. So he wisely went elsewhere -- and relaxed.

By all accounts, the Clinton's visit here was all anyone could have hoped for, and more. The skies were bright, the water sparkling, the ambience friendly as could be. Even the year-round island population, said to include a Republican or two, was plainly agog -- both because of the confirmation the Clinton visit appeared to offer of the Vineyards' wonders and because of the commercial opportunities it instantly created.

Of course, it was all over too soon. But that's true of all vacations, as it is of life, of love and even of presidencies.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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