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Summer White House no big deal on Martha's Vineyard

CHILMARK, Mass. — President Barack Obama's motorcade snaked through the woods here the other night, past open fields of Queen Anne's lace and a lone doe, but none of the crowds that usually gather for presidential visits to small towns.

After a 15-minute drive, headed to dinner at a restaurant with the first lady, Obama finally passed two women on the side of the road who stopped to wave and smile.

Despite a few rainy days that kept him off the golf course, Obama and his family are enjoying something they rarely get the rest of the year — a quiet community where nobody much cares where they go.

On this 96-square-mile island off the coast of Cape Cod, it's no big deal for a president to spend some down time. Chief executives since Ulysses S. Grant have made the trek for the fresh ocean air and wide open wetlands and woods.

This weekend, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton will arrive for a visit that may include a get-together with the Obamas. She'll likely attend the birthday party of Democratic elder Vernon Jordan, and is expected to appear at a fundraiser at a wealthy supporter's compound in Edgartown.

The Secret Service long ago figured out how to secure the traveling White House amid the writers, artists and other celebrities, who own or rent summer homes here. The island's population swells from 15,000 in the winter to more than 100,000 in August.

President Bill Clinton loved the pastoral views, long Atlantic beaches and ice cream shops — where he stood in line with other customers — so much that he came every summer of his presidency but one. Now on his sixth summer visit, Obama may well match that record.

"If the motorcade is going by I'll stop and watch," said Thomas Dresser, a year-round resident and author of several books about the Vineyard. "But we're not racing down the street every time we hear he's headed to the golf course."

Since arriving by helicopter last weekend, Obama's schedule has included a mix of mornings with his family and afternoons on one of the island's golf courses with his buddies, including and comic Larry David.

It's the remote nature of the Vineyard — most people come on a 45-minute ferry from Cape Cod or by air — that has drawn presidents over the years.

Grant learned of it during the Civil War, when two Vineyard ferries were conscripted into the Union Navy. In 1874, he came as president and stayed in a rustic cottage in the Methodist Wesleyan Grove Campground.

Grant "put the Vineyard on the map, and it became a place where tourists would go," said Dresser, author of Martha's Vineyard, a History and a local historian. "Having the president choose the place kind of drew the national attention, just as it does today."

The Clintons revived Martha's Vineyard as a presidential retreat. The president enjoyed sitting in with musical bands, visiting the yearly agricultural fair and browsing the bookstores.

"It became sort of blase," said Dresser. "You would say, 'Okay, here comes the president walking down the street. Again.' It became more or less common."

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