It was a time when the boats were full, business was bustling and the Island seemed like the center of the universe — at least for a few weeks each summer.
The span between 1993 to 2000 was when former President Bill Clinton made the Island the site of the summer White House. In local circles this period is known simply as the Clinton years, an era when the Vineyard hit its pinnacle of popularity and celebrity status.
Now as Hillary Clinton battles Barrack Obama for the Democratic Presidential nomination, there arises the distinct possibility of what seemed impossible when the First Family last flew into the horizon on Air Force One in August of 2000: that the Vineyard may once again play host to a President Clinton.
It could be called the Clinton Years: Part Two, and like most Hollywood sequels this one would pack more bang for the buck. Because if Mrs. Clinton is elected president and chooses to vacation here, the Island would be getting not one, but two Presidents.
But would Islanders welcome the return of the summer White House and embrace the Clintons just as they did in 1993? The short answer is yes — an informal survey of business owners, elected officials and Island residents reveals an upbeat attitude about the prospect.
But some interesting side notes surfaced as people reflected on the Clinton years. For starters, some people do not agree that President Bill Clinton’s decision to visit the Island was solely responsible for the boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many instead insist that a record economic expansion gave more people the disposable income to vacation on the Vineyard. They also say that this period saw tremendous growth in the real estate sector as speculators bought properties for investment.
Most people will readily agree that the Vineyard was never more popular than around the end of the millennium. And while many argue this was not just because of the Clintons, few would disagree that their presence created a spark that led to an explosion of publicity and attention for the Island.
“It was an exciting time — everyone knew about the Vineyard, because it was where the President went for vacation,” said Renee Balter, former president of the Oak Bluffs Association. “Visiting celebrities and political [figures] is nothing new on the Vineyard, but the stakes are a little higher when the President [of the United States] comes to visit.”
She added: “All of a sudden people are saying, ‘Well, if the President goes there, then I want to go there, too.’ ”
Marc Hanover, owner of Linda Jean’s Restaurant in Oak Bluffs, said the presidential visits were great advertising for the Vineyard.
“The Clintons brought an international spotlight to the Island,” he said. “People know the President can go anywhere in the world on vacation, but he chooses to come here. You can’t buy that kind of advertisement,” he said.
When the Clintons visited his restaurant it did not instantly translate into added businesses, Mr. Hanover said. The Presidential entourage would take up several tables and the Secret Service would seal the doors and turn away new customers while the Clintons had their breakfast or lunch. But there was no doubt their visits had a residual effect both on his business and the rest of the Island, he said.
“People would come in the next year and want to see where Bill and Hillary ate their eggs. I would always think, what’s the big deal, but people get excited about the President. And when [Bill Clinton] came into town he created a lot of excitement because he took the time to meet the people,” he said.
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.
Initial fears that interested spectators might disrupt the Clinton’s vacation soon faded, as it became apparent the Clintons were just as interested — if not more — in making new friends.
“They loved meeting people — both of them [Bill and Hillary] — it’s like they couldn’t help themselves,” said Peter Martell, owner of the Wesley Hotel, which housed the Secret Service during Presidential visits. “You take your average movie star [visiting the Island], and they generally want to be left alone. And we respect that — we understand they are on vacation. But the Clintons wanted to meet people, they went out of their way to meet people.”
Mr. Martell said Mr. Clinton had a spontaneous side that would often give the Secret Service fits.
“I’ve heard stories that Bill [Clinton] liked to do things on the spur of the moment. He would be on one part of the Island and suddenly decide he wanted ice cream, and everyone would have to scramble. He was the kind of guy who would be driving down the road and see a burger shop and decide he just had to stop,” Mr. Martell said.
Edgartown harbor master Charles Blair was also aware of the former President’s spontaneous nature.
“He wasn’t big on keeping a schedule. If he suddenly decided, ‘I want to go to [Edgartown] harbor for a boat trip,’ nothing was going to stop him,” Mr. Blair said.
Mr. Blair said the Edgartown harbor department was assigned to transport the counter assault team and to provide additional support when the Clintons visited the harbor, although much of the additional workload was mundane; like arranging a kayak for Chelsea Clinton or keeping other boaters away from the President.
“One time we had to stop a photographer who crossed over into the security zone; that’s about as exciting as it got,” Mr. Blair said.
But for many Islanders, just meeting the Clintons was excitement enough.
Ann Nelson, retired owner of the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven, said the former Clintons were always gracious and amiable during their visits to the store. During their first visit, they stayed for hours and talked to everyone in the store — including the employees.
“Hillary [Clinton] thanked each and every staff member — she made it a point to talk to everyone. Everyone working that day had their own personal memory of the Clintons. It was wonderful,” she said.
A spokesman for the Hillary Clinton campaign could not comment on whether she planned to vacation on the Vineyard. After all, the former First Lady has more pressing matters to attend to than making plans to sail on Walter Cronkite’s yacht or dine with Carly Simon — namely getting elected President.
But some are already pumped at the thought of the Clinton Years: Part II.
“It’s just what we need . . . to get some of that excitement and energy back. And this time it would be better — we would be getting two Presidents for the price of one,” Mr. Martell said.