Before Martha's Vineyard, Obama to visit Yellowstone, Grand Canyon

Choosing a vacation spot can be delicate business during a recession, even for the president. He'll spend a weekend at the national parks, then a week at a $20-million estate in Massachusetts.

August 14, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — Before he leaves for his summer break on tony Martha's Vineyard, President Obama will spend a weekend in the decidedly more populist, middle-American terrain of the national park system.

No president can afford to look elitist amid an economic downturn, which makes the business of choosing a vacation spot a delicate one. Obama will be splitting the difference, in essence.

He'll spend the last week of August at a $20-million estate in one of the most private spots on the Vineyard. But this weekend, he'll balance out the imagery with a visit to Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon.

"Ronald Reagan used to say an American president can never go wrong if he looks good on a horse," said Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Rice University. "I would argue a president can never go wrong visiting Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. They are perhaps the two most significant points of national landscape pride."

Obama's vacation plans echo those of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton. The 42nd president relished Martha's Vineyard. But he also was attuned to American tastes.

Aided by pollsters who surveyed Americans' views on the subject, Clinton made a point of vacationing in Wyoming -- including a 1995 camping expedition at Grand Teton National Park.

More than a century before Obama's trip, another president followed a similar itinerary. Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 traveled from Washington to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, noted Brinkley, author of "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America."

Brinkley called it Roosevelt's most "successful" trip outside Washington as president.

The two halves of Obama's vacation will feel markedly different.

Yellowstone advertises ranger talks at Old Faithful. Visitors might glimpse grizzly bears and wolves. A mid-range room at a Yellowstone lodge might cost $1,000 for a weeklong stay.

On the Vineyard, Obama and his family will enjoy a 28.5-acre estate, complete with horse barn and multiple dwellings. Called the Blue Heron Farm, it was purchased by Mississippi businessman William Van Devender in 2005. Campaign finance records show Van Devender contributing to various Republican politicians.

"It's the very best part of the Vineyard," said Caroline Taylor, owner of a real estate firm on Martha's Vineyard. "There are larger parcels of land and more private estates. And it's an area where there are many politicians and theater actors and writers. They like it up there for the privacy."

Taylor estimated that a comparable property might rent for as much as $40,000 a week.

The White House said the president is paying for his family's lodging on the Vineyard, but a spokesman would not reveal how much the Obamas will spend. Secret Service declined to estimate what it would cost to protect the first family that week.

Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster, said that by touring the parks, Obama is trying to inoculate himself from any criticism of his later trip to the Vineyard. He said Obama was less interested in natural geysers than the approval of middle-class voters. To Wilson, Obama's travels recall the 1983 movie "Vacation," in which Chevy Chase's character and his family spend no more than a few seconds appreciating the Grand Canyon.

"He'll do the Chevy Chase thing: Jump out of the car, look at the Grand Canyon, then jump back in and head to the Vineyard," Wilson said.


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