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Politics at Play on Martha?s Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard

THE paella has been ordered, the invitations have been sent out, and a large white tent has been reserved for the lawn. Next weekend, a few hundred guests, many who spend their summers on this dune-swept island off the coast of Cape Cod, will gather in Edgartown at the waterfront home of Frank Biondi, a former chief executive of Universal Studios and Viacom, and his wife, Carol, for a fund-raising party for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Donations for the fund-raiser, which is also being coordinated by Jill Iscol and her husband, Ken, who was principal owner of Cellular One, have been set at $2,300 and $1,000. Helping with the event are Clinton friends like Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg and the Washington power broker Vernon Jordan.

Meanwhile, about 10 miles from the Biondis’ home, on the northeast side of the island in Oak Bluffs, similar preparations are being made for a fund-raising party for Senator Barack Obama, to be held the following Tuesday at the home of Ron and Judy Davenport, founders of Pittsburgh-based Sheridan Broadcasting.

Seventy-five or so donors who will shell out $2,300 each are expected to have a 45-minute audience with Mr. Obama in the Davenports’ living room. He will also make an appearance outdoors, where about 200 people, donating $1,000 each, will mingle over cocktails in the Davenports’ backyard abutting Nantucket Sound.

Carol Craven, the owner of a gallery in Vineyard Haven, who is on the host committee for the Obama fund-raiser, acknowledged that some of her friends won’t be at the party. “An awful lot of my pals are Hillary people,” she said.

It’s turning out to be that kind of summer on Martha’s Vineyard, long a Democratic enclave — one in which a highly charged political season, with two prominent candidates with powerful personal stories to tell, is dividing old loyalties, testing longtime friendships and causing a few awkward moments at the island’s many dinner parties.

“It’s on the beach, in the stores, at the dinner table,” said Tamara Weiss, the owner of Midnight Farm, a sprawling, eclectic boutique in Vineyard Haven. (Though one of her partners in the store, Carly Simon, has been a prominent Clinton supporter and is expected to appear at another fund-raising event on the island for Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Weiss says she herself is still undecided about which candidate to back.)

“There are heated political discussions going on in social scenes usually not focused on politics this early,” said Betsy Sheerr, while finishing off a frittata at Deon’s, a cozy, contemporary American restaurant in West Tisbury, before heading to her yoga class. “Everyone you talk to is convinced their candidate is the one. It’s more intensity than I can remember. When it was Gore versus Bradley, the divide wasn’t quite so passionate.”

Last month, for instance, said Ms. Sheerr, a summer resident who owns a public speaking consultancy with offices in Philadelphia and Tel Aviv, the debate invaded a tennis court, when she met up with a friend she hadn’t seen since last summer and hailed her with the typical early season greeting: “Hi, how was your winter?”

Her friend’s response? “So, who are you supporting?”

“It’s like that,” Ms. Sheerr said. “It was like the second thing out of her mouth.”

MIKE WALLACE, the longtime “60 Minutes” correspondent, still spry at 89, was relaxing at his traditional cedar-shingled home in Vineyard Haven with his wife, Mary, on a recent Sunday morning when he suddenly offered to take a visitor on a tour of the neighborhood.

“Come on, let’s go,” he said, as he eased himself behind the steering wheel of a dusty Honda and headed down a leafy two-lane road. “There’s the cemetery,” he said, waving his hand toward a well-kept graveyard. “That’s where all of us will wind up.”

As he drove down shady streets with large houses and perfectly manicured lawns with a hint of blue water beyond, pointing out houses where Harvey Weinstein, the film executive, and the late columnist Art Buchwald once lived, he spotted some orange traffic cones blocking the driveway leading to a huge construction site.

He stopped the car. “Move those cones,” he said to his passenger, then zoomed up the driveway as three stone-and-glass buildings — a stark contrast to the typical cedar-shingled, Vineyard-style home — came into sight. “It looks like it should be a club of some sort,” he said, before explaining that it was a single home being built for just one person. His look of disapproval said it all.

Continuing on his tour, he pointed out the post office and gestured toward the tennis courts of the Vineyard Haven Yacht Club. “We’re playing here today at 11 a.m. with Rosie Styron,” he said. “Rose Styron,” he explained, “is the social doyenne of the island. You know when the season has begun when she holds her first Saturday night party.”

As for Mr. Wallace’s stance on the hot topic on the Vineyard this summer — Clinton or Obama? — he says he’s not taking sides. Asked who he is supporting for 2008, he responded, “I’m trying my best to stay away from it.”

For decades, Martha’s Vineyard has been known as a summer enclave for the rich, the famous and the powerful — perhaps no more so than during the years of the Clinton presidency, when Bill and Hillary, with no permanent vacation home of their own, would regularly visit and stay with friends who had places on the Vineyard. For a time, they almost turned the Vineyard into a de facto Summer White House, continuing a tradition that goes back at least as far as Ulysses S. Grant (Long Branch, N.J.) and has continued through the administrations of Dwight D. Eisenhower (Newport, R.I., and Gettysburg, Pa.), Richard M. Nixon (San Clemente, Calif.), Ronald Reagan (Santa Barbara, Calif.) and, of course, the two Bush presidents: with Bush 41 at Kennebunkport, Me., and Bush 43 usually opting for Crawford, Tex.

The Vineyard was also the place where the Clintons — with Chelsea in tow — retreated on Aug. 18, 1998, amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and were greeted at the airport in West Tisbury with embraces from Vernon Jordan and Ms. Simon.

References to the Clintons are seemingly everywhere on the island. Photographs of Bill and Chelsea Clinton, with frizzy hair and jean shorts, on their first visit to the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven still hang above the steps leading to the shop’s second floor. Espresso Love in Edgartown continues to sell the presidential muffin, created especially for Bill, and Wicked Martha’s, just across from the ferry landing in Vineyard Haven, is selling “Vote for Hillary” T-shirts for $8.95. It’s hard not to talk to an island resident without a reference to “the first time I met Bill” or “the last time I saw Hillary” popping up in the conversation.

That’s why this summer has been such an interesting one on the island, with Mrs. Clinton running for president — a favorite daughter, if you will — and with many people both wishing her well and reveling in their proximity to the woman who could be the country’s first female president.

Yet, the emergence of Mr. Obama as a serious rival — and with his own “first” at stake — has begun to set friend against friend and, at times, has brought a decidedly hard edge to the usual summer banter.

Similar conversations and the inevitable choosing of sides are also taking place at summer communities around the country from the Hamptons to Harbor Springs, Mich. But perhaps nowhere is the intensity as great as on the Vineyard because of its history, the pedigree of its residents and those residents’ proximity to power.

“There’s no dinner party that goes by without everyone going around to see who wants whom to be president,” said Ms. Styron, the poet and widow of the novelist William Styron. “There’s often intense debate — and often sitting back and laughing at the intensity of the scene.” She insists the banter, while impassioned, is always civil.

Well, maybe not always.

Sitting on the latticed front porch of the Chilmark Store, a low-slung weather-beaten building that is a regular lunchtime hangout on the island for residents like Harold Ramis and Michael J. Fox, the Harvard Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz recalled a dinner party that he and his wife, Carolyn Cohen, gave at their Vineyard home a couple of weeks ago. Of the 16 friends at the table, most were either Hillary or Barack supporters — and neither side was willing to give an inch. “People were pretty ferocious about it,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “I apologized to someone for going a little bit too far.”

Robin Leeds, a political strategist who worked for the Clinton White House and has been splitting her time between Washington and the Vineyard for eight years, said she is backing Mr. Obama this time around. “A lot of people ask me why I’m supporting Obama over Hillary,” she said. “It’s a healthy tension.”

“This is Hillary land,” said Deon Thomas, the co-owner and chef of Deon’s restaurant. “I think people remain loyal to the Clintons. But then here comes Obama,” Mr. Thomas added. “People are caught between a rock and hard place. May the best man win.”

THE Clinton and Obama campaigns aren’t the only ones making stops on moneyed Martha’s Vineyard this summer.

Alex H. MacDonald, a trial lawyer from Boston with a second home in Chilmark, is having a fund-raiser for the former Senator John Edwards near the date of the Biondis’ party for Mrs. Clinton. And a fund-raiser for a Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, is scheduled for tomorrow evening at an Oak Bluffs home. And then there’s the stance being taken by Richard Friedman, a Cambridge-based developer and hotelier. He played host to the Clintons for many summers at his secluded compound on Oyster Pond in Edgartown. Chelsea, he said, used to ride his horses and even fed his pet pig, Henrietta.

But the Clintons won’t be staying at his home this summer. He is a national finance chairman for Senator Christopher J. Dodd.

Though most of his old friends remain civil, “there’s a little bit of political tension,” said Mr. Friedman, as he relaxed over a glass of red wine at his house. “Nobody’s mad at me for being with Chris Dodd,” he said, pointing out that Senator Dodd is one of his oldest and best friends, though he added, “They might give me some grief for it.”

Needless to say, Mr. Friedman won’t be attending the fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton at the Biondis’. “I think it’d be inappropriate if I did,” he said.