The Corner

Obama in the Vineyard

On August 23, 2009, President Obama will begin his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. In contrast to President Clinton, who bedded down in Edgartown, the Obamas have chosen to stay in the town of Chilmark. As a psychoanalyst and a seasonal resident of the island, I couldn’t resist wondering whether there was any meaning in the difference between their choices.

Tony is the word for the Vineyard — style uber alles: In Chilmark, it’s Birkenstocks, creased shorts, a well-worn T-shirt and — to top it all off — a low-brow Red Sox cap. Anti-Bush stickers stare at you from rear bumpers while Obama rules the road from every Jeep and SUV, not to mention the occasional (and embarrassing) Hummer. While the whole island tilts left, if you’re really a committed radical-left politico, you have no choice but to reside in up-island Chilmark, where the Far Left, still obsessed with dragging the Bush/Cheney duo into Federal Court, spends its summers.

Edgartown, lined with maples and colonial homes, looks out past the lighthouse and onto the harbor on the other side of which lies Chappaquiddick. It’s less ideological and quintessentially New England. It feels more real. Even members of the yacht club — dressed in top-siders, Nantucket reds, and buttoned down Brooks Brothers’ shirts — can laugh at themselves. Sure, the balance in Edgartown is liberal, but when the sun sets and the boats come home, the townspeople cross the aisle to drink together, dissect the recent demoralization of the Red Sox, and anticipate the after-tourist event of the year — the Bluefish Derby. Edgartown was the perfect place for Bill Clinton, a realistic town for a realistic man who possessed the ability to connect with whomever he met, a trait that enabled him to roll up his sleeves with congressional power horses and hammer out a deal.

And deal he did. NAFTA, “the end of welfare as we know it,” and — with the urging of a Republican congress — a precipitous cut in the capital-gains millstone from 35 to 20 percent. When it came to singing the song Americans wanted to hear, Clinton had perfect pitch. He could work a room and look into someone’s face in a way that made the person feel as if Bill saw only him. The Clinton ethos fit perfectly with the different strains of Edgartown life. (I had the strange experience of nearly running into a post-jog, diaphoretic Bill Clinton with my bike, which evoked a nervous smile on my face and a full body tremor that propelled me all the way home.) Everyone enjoyed having the Clintons on the Vineyard.

The Obamas are pretty popular people, as well — the president’s battle over the health-care bill notwithstanding. It’s not the sharp difference of opinion between the president and the public that has hurt him. It’s how he thinks. Barack Obama thinks differently from Bill Clinton. He’s more doctrinaire, passionate about his ideas, fixated on a single path for the country. He ran as a man above the fray, the man who ushered us into post-racial America. Unlike Clinton, Obama looks to a hardened ideology that draws its inspiration from the storming of the Bastille, a Rousseauian social contract, and the dialectical struggle between the haves and have-nots. These reference points can fly unscathed across the Chilmark skies but wouldn’t get off the ground in Edgartown.

So, we have in this seemingly innocent choice of presidential domiciliation a glimpse of Obama’s character style. The Far Left takes refuge in its own hermetic certainty that often expresses itself as smugness among the rank and file. I can see the president heading for the wide wooden porch of the Chilmark store, pulling up a rocker and resting his feet on a bench. All around him the crowds are ogling, sighing, and urging him to dig in his heels, keep up the fight, and defeat those heartless Republicans. Yet, for all their impatience with his faltering attempts to make their utopian vision of America a reality, Obama will feel he is in his element, not with the ACORN branch of that element, not with Black Panther contempt, but with the rarefied air only the radical chic can breathe.

The president chose Chilmark for his well-earned vacation because that’s where the utopians go. And like many utopians, he wants to transform all of us into the idealized participants of his dream. I suspect he hears his inner voice more loudly than he hears the shouting crowds of unruly moms, grandmas, and sick kids. It would be best for his presidency if he were to put a lid on that voice and tune in to what the cheering and jeering off-island crowds are telling him. Were he to hear them, he might learn some deep truths about the people over whom he presides and — most importantly — about himself.

– Irwin Savodnik, a seasonal resident of Martha’s Vineyard, is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and philosopher who teaches at UCLA.

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