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Presidential visits to Cape Cod and the Islands

Presidential visits to Cape Cod and the Islands, November/December Cape Cod Life |

President Barack Obama, his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha greet top brass during a recent landing at Joint Base Cape Cod. The first family spends time on Martha’s Vineyard every summer, flying to the Cape aboard Air Force One, and then to the Vineyard aboard the helicopter, Marine One. Courtesy of Otis Air National Guard Base

Like Cleveland, John F. Kennedy, who occupied the White House from 1961 until his assassination in 1963, had a summer home on Cape Cod. And he left a very special legacy in the form of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy, and his wife Rose, purchased a home on the water in Hyannis Port in the 1920s, according to the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum’s website. That home, with two nearby homes purchased by their sons John F. and Robert Kennedy, became the Kennedy Compound and the center of the political universe in the early 1960s.

James Dow of Centerville recalls waiting outside St. Francis Xavier Church on South Street in Hyannis in 1961 and ‘62 after he finished his Sunday morning paper route for a glimpse of the President and First Lady. He’d set his bike against a streetlight and stand by the back entrance “just to get a look at the President of the United States.” It was remarkable how little security there was, Dow recalls. “He walked out of church and right past me. … I had no trouble getting a great look.”

On August 7, 1961, seven months after moving into the White House, President Kennedy signed the bill authorizing the Cape Cod National Seashore, thereby protecting some 40 miles of Atlantic coastline on the Outer Cape. In his remarks, Kennedy told the assembled dignitaries, “From personal knowledge I realize very well how useful this is going to be for the people of the Cape and Massachusetts and New England and the entire United States.”

Nearly 30 years later, President George H. W. Bush made a brief stop in Mashpee on Nov. 1, 1990, to stump for Republican office seekers, including William Weld, who was elected governor of Massachusetts five days later. In remarks delivered at Mashpee Middle School, the President said, “Let me say how great it is to be back on the Cape, to breathe the deep magic of this place. … Way back in 1943, in the fall, just about this time in 1943, I spent some time at the Cape, stationed at the naval air station, then at Hyannis. I’ve never forgotten the joy and the wonder of the Cape.”

Throughout the 1990s, Bill Clinton, who served as president from 1993 to 2001, made several visits to Martha’s Vineyard with his family, beginning in the first summer of his presidency. The Clintons reportedly enjoyed golf, bike rides, and shopping in local bookstores. Recalling those visits in a 2008 article in the Vineyard Gazette, Jim Hickey wrote, “President Clinton’s gregarious nature was well known around the Island, and there are many tales of routine shopping excursions or downtown strolls that turned into massive traffic jams as the Clintons stopped to talk with seemingly every Islander or vacationer within hailing distance.”

Also known for his friendships with Hollywood celebrities, Clinton celebrated his 51st birthday on the island in 1997 with a clambake at the Vineyard home of actors Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, according to Reuters. Guests included singer Carly Simon, television talk show veteran Merv Griffin, author William Styron, Washington power broker Vernon Jordan, and musician Jimmy Buffett, who sang his signature song “Margaritaville,” the news agency reported.

President Barack Obama has also made Martha’s Vineyard his family’s number one summer vacation destination, visiting the island every summer but one of his eight-year tenure in the White House. This summer’s vacation followed the pattern of previous years, according to reports in the Vineyard Gazette. “The 15-day vacation was quiet and low-key,” Sara Brown wrote in the Gazette. “The President played 10 rounds of golf. … The First Family spent four afternoons at a private beach in Edgartown, and per tradition, watched the Oak Bluffs fireworks show Friday from Ms. [Valerie] Jarrett’s Oak Bluffs home.” The Obamas also visited a range of restaurants across the island.

Lory Reilly, manager of the Nashua House Hotel in Oak Bluffs, says she had her first presidential sighting this summer, when President and Mrs. Obama had dinner at a local restaurant. “I saw his head go by when he was passing the hotel,” Reilly reports. She added that the security requirements were very thorough during the visit.

While she would have liked to get a closer look at the President (and maybe have him sign a denim jacket she decorated with his image when he was running for his first term), Reilly says she has no complaints about the security precautions. In the current climate, she says, “I think it’s very wise.”

Ellen Albanese is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Waquoit.

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