Barack’s Mar-a-Vineyard Birthday Extravaganza

There was nothing, it seemed, that grew stale so soon as pleasure.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned

Come this weekend—about the time you are rummaging through your glove compartment searching for that old mask, the one you use to wear to Little League and Home Depot—Barack Obama’s closest friends and retainers will be heading to Martha’s Vineyard, off the coast of Massachusetts, to celebrate the former president’s sixtieth birthday.

In addition to the usual satraps and placemen who like to win friends and influence people in high places, the guest list includes Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and George Clooney, hangers-on from the 55th birthday bash that attracted the likes of Beyoncé, Jay Z, and George Lucas. President Joe Biden sent his regrets.

Pearl Jam is providing the show tunes, although I would not be shocked if Obama’s podcast co-host Bruce Springsteen (who should know better) provides a surprise cameo and a “Born in the U.S.A.” encore (the only uplifting American ballad that has the words: “I’ve got nowhere to run and nowhere to go…”)

Unless Richard Branson charters one of his own Virgin jumbo jets to ferry in the guests, I am guessing that the transportation of choice to the luau will either be Gulfstreams (“The G550 executes your perfect work-life design with bespoke craftsmanship, allowing room for various tactical configurations…”) or NetJets, so that by the time the wait staff at the party is passing around ecologically sensitive, Ottolenghi-inspired hors doeuvres, Martha’s Vineyard Airport will resemble one of those Pearl Harbor photographs showing plane squadrons parked wing-to-wing…just before the Japanese arrived.

***

Normally an August birthday on the Vineyard would be filled out with Kennedys and Clintons, but perhaps for both presidential families the Vineyard doesn’t recall especially happy memories.

On his 1997 presidential vacation there Bill bought for his girlfriend Monica Lewinsky a t-shirt at the Black Dog Tavern (appropriately, its motto is: “Life off the Leash”), a souvenir that remains impounded in the archives of the Senate impeachment trial.

And it was in 1969, after another booze-fueled summer party on Chappaquiddick Island (adjacent to Martha’s Vineyard), that Senator Ted Kennedy, on the far side of midnight, drove his car off a beachside wooden bridge, killing Mary Jo Kopechne and whatever chances the last Kennedy brother might have had to become president.

Not all parties on the Vineyard end with Barack and Michelle handing out favor bags (all 1216 pages of their memoirs and maybe some non-animal-tested skin cream?) at the end of their long driveway.

***

The gathering of so many guests and staff (more when you add in all the security personnel, chauffeurs, and food tasters) on a small summer island has provoked endless sniping in the illiberal press at what is being called a superspreader event, an environmentally-sensitive variation on a Trump rally where those in attendance, instead of chanting “Lock her up,” will be saying: “We saw Bill and Hillary in East Hampton, and both were looking fabulous.”

Party planners for the Obamas are saying that all the A-listers will have been vaccinated and tested, and I guess if anyone wants to do contact tracing they can consult the Style section of the Washington Post or watch The Oprah Winfrey Show on Monday.

Plus much is being made of the fact that guests should not bring Barack a gift but instead make a donation to one of his favorite charities. Kind of a shame, I think. It would be nice for once—in the interest of transparency—if a politician’s birthday invitation read:

In lieu of a donation to My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, the Girls Opportunity Alliance, or the Obama Foundation’s Global Leadership programs, please think of giving Barack a wad of small, unmarked bills….

After all, even if you have “community organizer” on your CV, you don’t get a $65 million book advance, $12 million Vineyard beach house, or $100 million Netflix deal by missing the small angles.

***

Not everyone goes into politics to fix up old houses in Nashville or watch ballot boxes in Nicaragua, as Jimmy Carter did.

Donald Trump ran for president because he figured his banks were getting ready to foreclose on his boardwalk (paper) empire. W stood for office the way others join the family business—the hours are good, and you can play golf on the weekends.

As best I can guess, Obama ran for president for the same reason that Clooney makes those Ocean 11 movies—it’s easy money, you get your own plane, and other people do your thinking on foreign policy.

No one can say Obama ran for the presidency because he likes the business of politics, i.e., trying to cut deals with the likes of Senator Mitch McConnell. (See Garland, Merrick, the Supreme Court nomination of…)

I would be hard pressed to come up with a president in the last 150 years who had less aptitude for back-room dealing than Obama. Yes, he liked giving those soaring speeches, attending G8 summits, and having the Super Bowl champs over to the White House, but that was about it.

At the end of the day, Obama was a mannequin in the store window of Corporate America, there to make everyone feel good (about race, gender equality, climate change, justice, etc.) while in the back rooms trillions of dollars were being siphoned into the troughs of Homeland Security, the medical insurance industry, the military-industrial complex, and failed Wall Street banks. In exchange, Obama got the house on the Vineyard and some Hollywood friends.

A Washington friend of mine once said of his presidency: “They [meaning corporate interests] roll this guy every day.”

***

If you need a case study for the failures of the Obama presidency, look no farther than the war in Afghanistan, which might well fall to the Taliban about the time that George and Amal walk up the Vineyard driveway with their twins, bearing two bottles of 1961 (the year the president was born) Chateau Petrus (for which the street value would be about $21,042).

When Obama ran for president in 2008, he did well, in part, based on his alleged opposition to the 2003 war in Iraq, although at the time the troops departed for the Middle East he was an Illinois state senator and the legislature in Springfield was not cast binding votes on whether it was in America’s interest to smoke Saddam out of his hole.

Once in office, Obama approached foreign affairs with the same sense of entitlement that got him (with few accomplishments) into Harvard Law School and the U.S. Senate.

He lectured the Chinese about climate change, liberated oppressed Arabs (until he came to his senses and embraced their oppressors, including Israel, which got a payday of $38 billion), snubbed the British political establishment while sucking up to the Queen and the royal family, brought his We-are-the-World Tour to Russia, and spoke of a new world order as though it were yet another remake of Star Wars.

Toward the end of 2009, Obama was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (for reasons that few ever understood).

***

In between winning the award and dropping by Oslo to collect it with the check, Obama decided to double down on the war in Afghanistan and send an additional 30,000 troops to the battle grounds of the Hindu Kush.

Before committing the fresh troops, Obama made a big show of conducting a “review” of American policies in the Middle East. He brought in generals, held solemn White House conferences, and had his picture taken with the best and the brightest, after which he pronounced:

This review is now complete. And as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home. These are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.

He added:

The 30,000 additional troops that I’m announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 — the fastest possible pace — so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers. They’ll increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.

Elsewhere in his pronunciamento (“I” is scattered throughout the speech), Obama quotes Dwight Eisenhower, mentions Franklin Roosevelt, invokes American exceptionalism, and, like all presidents, asks God to bless the United States, although his good war or just war or necessary war in Afghanistan turned out to be just another variation of what in 1899 the poet Rudyard Kipling called “the white man’s burden”.

Kipling was writing about the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, but he might well have been writing about Obama’s holy war in Afghanistan when he intoned:

Take up the White Man’s burden—

    The savage wars of peace—

Fill full the mouth of Famine

    And bid the sickness cease;

And when your goal is nearest

    The end for others sought,

Watch Sloth and heathen Folly

    Bring all your hopes to nought.

Something tells me that no one will recite this poem after dinner at the Vineyard birthday party, when Obama is lionized as a man of global vision and a Nobel peace laureate.

***

On paper, Obama and Trump share almost nothing in common. Obama is cerebral, a philosopher-king, African-American, and a defender of justice while Trump is a white supremacist, con man who likes to wear extended red neckties.

But that’s just the packaging; underneath, both Obama and Trump embraced politics as a way to make (or keep) money, and both of their public personas are the result of careful cinematic image crafting.

Is it any wonder that Obama is so drawn to Hollywood types—Clooney, Hanks, Lucas, Spielberg, etc.—whose careers are built on illusion? Or that Trump’s only paying job in his life was in reality TV?

For Trump, business and politics are Ponzi schemes. He uses his new money to repay old lenders, and his net worth is whatever he can borrow in business or lie about in politics.

I am sure his real estate “empire” is kaput (endless debt and, besides, who plays golf anymore?), so his new shell game and syndicated TV show is called “Who Stole My Election?” which hustles $20, $50, or $100 donations from gullible cable viewers who loved “The Apprentice.”

Trump entertains his marks (the Jim Jordans of this world) at his seaside hotel with free steaks, soundbites that they can use in their elections, and the occasional evening with a Miss America contestant.

Deep down, as Rick Blaine says in his own gin joint in Casablanca, Trump’s world view is this: “I’m the only cause I’m interested in.” Mr. Rick only needed to stay a step ahead of the Nazis; Trump’s on the run from his lenders, district attorneys, and all those lawyers of the groped women.

***

Obama’s hustle—every bit as convoluted as one of Trump’s confidence games—is to persuade the world that he’s a gifted writer and political thinker, a cross between Harper Lee and Montesquieu.

In that sense, having a seaside summer house on the Vineyard (William Styron used to be there) is part of the best-selling author stage set. Don’t forget that George Plimpton used to have hundreds to his annual fireworks party (albeit in the Hamptons).

Toward that end, Obama employs roomfuls of speechwriters and imagineers who spin his pedestrian thoughts into political and economic gold (the presidency, standing ovations at Davos, etc.). Nice work if you can get it, but I am not sure it counts as writing.

***

If Trump wants the world to believe he’s a self-made tycoon who will run America from the bottom line up, Obama’s bait-and-switch is that he’s a gifted writer who with his pen is capable of staring into his own soul, and that of the nation.

Central to the Obama self-aggrandizing myth is that he writes all of his books “by himself”. To use a phrase coined by Tom Wolfe, he’s the Balzac of the Beltway. But did he?

Here are three random passages from Obama’s three books: Dreams From My Father, The Audacity of Hope, and A Promised Land. (I know, they all sound like religious tracts.)

Read the excerpts not for their content but for the style and structure of the writing. If it helps, read them out loud or have someone read them out loud to you. When you are done, tell me that Obama is the author of all three passages.

Here’s a section from Dreams From My Father:

Miscegenation. The word is humpbacked, ugly, portending a monstrous outcome: like antebellum or octoroon, it evokes images of another era, a distant world of horsewhips and flames, dead magnolias and crumbling porticos. And yet it wasnt until 1967—the year I celebrated my sixth birthday and Jimi Hendrix performed at Monterey, three years after Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize, a time when America had already begun to weary of black demands for equality, the problem of discrimination presumably solved—that the Supreme Court of the United States would get around to telling the state of Virginia that its ban on interracial marriages violated the Constitution. In 1960, the year that my parents were married, miscegenation still described a felony in over half the states in the Union. In many parts of the South, my father could have been strung up from a tree for merely looking at my mother the wrong way; in the most sophisticated of northern cities, the hostile stares, the whispers, might have driven a woman in my mothers predicament into a back-alley abortion—or at the very least to a distant convent that could arrange for adoption. Their very image together would have been considered lurid and perverse, a handy retort to the handful of softheaded liberals who supported a civil rights agenda.

This section comes from The Audacity of Hope:

Instead, we Democrats are just, well, confused. There are those who still champion the old-time religion, defending every New Deal and Great Society program from Republican encroachment, achieving ratings of 100 percent from the liberal interest groups. But these efforts seem exhausted, a constant game of defense, bereft of the energy and new ideas needed to address the changing circumstances of globalization or a stubbornly isolated inner city. Others pursue a more centrist” approach, figuring that so long as they split the difference with the conservative leadership, they must be acting reasonably — and failing to notice that with each passing year they are giving up more and more ground. Individually, Democratic legislators and candidates propose a host of sensible if incremental ideas, on energy and education, health care and homeland security, hoping that it all adds up to something resembling a governing philosophy.

And this is from his recent presidential memoir, A Promised Land:

Beyond the struggle to put words on a page, what I didnt fully anticipate was the way events would unfold during the more than three and a half years that have passed since that last flight on Air Force One. The country is in the grips of a global pandemic and an accompanying economic crisis, with more than 230,000 Americans dead, businesses shuttered, and millions of people out of work. Across the nation, people from all walks of life have poured into the streets to protest the deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the police. Perhaps most troubling of all, our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of crisis—a crisis rooted in a fundamental contest between two opposing visions of what America is and what it should be; a crisis that has left the body politic divided, angry, and mistrustful, and has allowed for an ongoing breach of institutional norms, procedural safeguards, and the adherence to basic facts that both Republicans and Democrats once took for granted.

To me the first except is lyrical and elegiac (“a distant world of horsewhips and flames, dead magnolias and crumbling porticos…”), and while the subject is the early relationship of Obama’s parents, the writing does not sound like the president’s voice. It sounds like someone else writing about Obama. (Who would say of their own childhood: “. . . the year I celebrated my sixth birthday and Jimi Hendrix performed at Monterey, three years after Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize, a time when America had already begun to weary of black demands for equality, the problem of discrimination presumably solved. . . ” That sounds like Time magazine.)

The second passage sounds exactly like Obama speaking (“Instead, we Democrats are just, well, confused…”). But whoever wrote the first passage would never in a million years have used a phrase as clunky as “we Democrats…”

The third passage sounds like content that Obama would have dictated to a speechwriter—Ben Rhodes, John Favreau, and Cody Keenan come to mind—who then would have rendered it into what Orwell might have called Presidentspeak. It is professional, competent, and dull, as is the rest of A Promised Land (which ends at halftime, with the Osama bin Laden snuff film).

In that passage the tipoff phrase is “all walks of life”. Again the writer of the excerpt from Dreams From My Father would never use such a trite expression; but a speechwriter would.

In each of the three passages, the sentences are paced and structured differently than those of the other excerpts. To me they are the work of three different writers. In other words, at least two are plagiarized—if Obama insists he’s the author of all three.

If I were to guess, I would say Obama “packaged” all three books (in the sense of some Hollywood producer), but that perhaps he only “wrote” the second installment. Even then, a speechwriter might have redrafted one of his speeches and cut-and-pasted it into the book. But, hey, whaddya want for $65 mill? Or as Samuel Goldwyn liked to say: Lets have some new clichés.

***

I have only been to Martha’s Vineyard twice in my life, staying both times for a few days during the summer. Growing up, I knew people who liked to sail from Long Island to Martha’s Vineyard, and on two occasions I went along as crew. We would moor in Menemsha harbor, near Chilmark, and I would sleep on the boat.

During the days I would head to South Beach (the Obama house is nearby) or walk around Edgartown with an ice cream cone. On my first visit in 1969, I persuaded a friend to come with me across Edgartown harbor to Chappaquiddick, where we walked and hitchhiked to the bridge off which Ted Kennedy crashed his car, killing Mary Jo Kopechne.

The accident had only happened about a month before we got there. Even on foot and with our thumbs we had no trouble finding the Kennedy party house or the dirt road down which the senator’s car had traveled to the bridge. We chatted with some the locals about the accident (mostly they just shook their heads in disbelief).

What became clear to us was that Kennedy had lied to the police, and then in his televised national address to the American people, about getting “confused” while driving to the Edgartown ferry.

Kennedy’s police statement reads, in part:

I was unfamiliar with the road and turned right onto Dike Road, instead of bearing hard left on Main Street. After proceeding for approximately one-half mile on Dike Road I descended a hill and came upon a narrow bridge…

Only one paved road led from the party house to the ferry dock, and yet the senator wanted all of America to believe that, purely by mistake, he ended up driving his car down a dirt lane to the beach and its treacherous bridge, thinking he was still headed to the ferry on the main, paved road. FYI: the turn onto the dirt road was at about a ninety degree angle from the main paved road.

Until that moment I had admired the Kennedy family in American politics, and grieved over the assassinations of John and Robert. But this was different: even to a hitchhiking teenager, Ted Kennedy’s cover story about the accident in which a woman was killed was fabricated—for political ends.

The likes of Robert McNamara and Ted Sorensen flew into Cape Cod to help Kennedy craft his alibi, and what they came up with now sounds as deceptive as some of their earlier statements about the Vietnam War.

For me, a child of the sixties, it was a “Say it ain’t so” moment, and in my mind I associate the rustic beauty of Martha’s Vineyard with political crimes and the lack of punishment (Kennedy was slapped on the wrist for leaving the scene of the accident and not reporting it to the police for about nine hours).

 Ever since I have thought differently about American politics and politicians.

***

I am not saying that someone will drown at Obama’s 60th birthday; I certainly hope that’s not the case. I might not want Oprah or George Clooney at any of my birthdays, but I don’t wish them ill.

At the same time I look forward to a day in American politics when presidents no longer cast long political shadows from seaside mansions, something Abraham Lincoln managed to avoid (although his wife Mary loved Long Branch, New Jersey, as did many presidents between U.S. Grant and Woodrow Wilson).

I confess that I find there’s something forlorn about Obama at his estate on Martha’s Vineyard summoning loyalists to his own birthday party, although it’s easy for me to imagine the black SUVs with tinted windows dropping off VIP guests and waiters swirling through the crowd with trays of champagne, white wine, and Perrier.

Jay Gatsby’s lavish parties on West Egg, in the imagination of F. Scott Fitzgerald, involved less planning and security. Gatsby was happy with whomever turned up at his mansion overlooking Long Island Sound, although the only guest that really mattered to him was his lost love, Daisy Buchanan. The rest were just part of the decor (as many Obama guests will discover for themselves). Fitzgerald describes this life of illusion, writing:

He [Gatsby] hadnt once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes. Sometimes, too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real.

I am not saying Obama—or even Trump—is the reincarnation of Gatsby, although it would be wonderful if there was a novelist of Fitzgerald’s ability on the Martha’s Vineyard guest list. He or she might divulge what you get, in terms of party favors, at a million dollar soirée or might describe Barack, alone amidst all the glitter of his A-list pals, staring out across the waters of Edgartown Great Pond, pondering about what Balzac called lost illusions. Of an equally grand setting Fitzgerald wrote:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsbys wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisys dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Addendum: As this piece was being edited, spokespersons for the Obamas indicated that, for reasons relating to the spread of the Delta variant, the party would be “scaled back” to “family and close friends,” although what American politician wants to scan down a long list of famous names and check a box indicating that someone (perhaps Jay Z or Tom Hanks?) is “not a close friend.” But as they say to express regret in Panama: “Don’t get dressed, because you’re not going.”

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.