Kiawah Island Memo
In modern times, presidential vacations often provide periods of relaxation interrupted by moments of crisis. President Biden spent the last week on Kiawah Island in South Carolina.
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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — During a week of vacation in South Carolina, President Biden had a message for the reporters camped out nearby, eager for his take on his recent legislative victories and the especially heated political news cycle back in Washington.
“Go get your bathing suits!” Mr. Biden shouted on Sunday, wearing his signature Ray-Ban sunglasses and a big smile as he rode his bike down the beach with the first lady, Jill Biden.
While Washington was in a frenzy over the revelation last week of a federal investigation into former President Donald J. Trump’s handling of sensitive documents and potential violation of the Espionage Act, Mr. Biden has made a point of trying to keep the chaos at bay.
Presidents often try to find time — but rarely succeed — to briefly unplug from the daily responsibilities of their office. In modern times, presidential vacations often provide periods of relaxation interrupted by moments of crisis.
Last year, one of Mr. Biden’s trips was canceled as the United States withdrew from Afghanistan. This time around, a rebound case of the coronavirus kept his summer plans in the lurch for two weeks.
President George W. Bush, who frequently escaped to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for vacations, found himself there in the summer of 2005 as Hurricane Katrina took direct aim at New Orleans. He was also in Crawford in 2001 when intelligence agencies warned of a possible attack by Al Qaeda months before Sept. 11.
In the summer of 2014, President Barack Obama was heading to the golf course on his first day of vacation on Martha’s Vineyard when news came that James Foley, an American journalist, had been beheaded by Islamic State terrorists. Mr. Obama held a news conference on the island and then continued with his golf game, drawing criticism for appearing insensitive.
Mr. Trump ordered a missile strike on Syria during a break at his Mar-a-Lago resort in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in that country’s civil war.
Mr. Biden headed back to Washington on Tuesday for a brief stop to sign into law one of his landmark achievements as president: the Inflation Reduction Act, aimed at lowering the cost of prescription drugs and fighting climate change.
But he took off again on Tuesday night for Wilmington, Del., to continue his summer vacation in his home state for another week. (Dr. Biden stayed behind in South Carolina, isolating after a positive coronavirus test on Tuesday morning.)
Mr. Biden often travels back to Delaware, even during busy stretches, to spend time with family and enjoy a sort of privacy that is hard to come by at the White House. But Kiawah Island, roughly 40 minutes south of Charleston, proved to be a real getaway for the Biden family, in contrast to the laid-back coastal town of Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, where he and the first lady own a beach house.
While Rehoboth’s crowded boardwalk features vendors who lean into the Biden connection and even sell themed merchandise, Kiawah Island’s quiet coast is lined with well-manicured mansions. Most of the residences and the island’s famous beach resort and golf course are set behind a strict security checkpoint where guests have to request a gate pass before they even arrive.
The president and the first lady, along with their son Hunter, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, stayed at a sprawling beachfront estate owned by a friend where they have stayed during previous visits to the island, according to the White House. The residence was shielded from the street by a winding driveway and thick greenery, and the Secret Service had reportedly blocked off a stretch of beach.
The White House did not outline Mr. Biden’s activities over the past week, but aside from a trip to the golf club for a quick taping of digital material for the White House, he ventured out only for Mass at a local Catholic church on Saturday evening, Sunday’s bike ride and a trip to the island’s beach club on Monday evening.
Mr. Biden has deep ties to South Carolina that stretch back to his close relationship with Ernest F. Hollings, the former Democratic senator from the state who helped persuade Mr. Biden to stay in the Senate after the 1972 car accident that killed his first wife and baby daughter.
“It’s very serene, and as a result, I think he’s found peace there over the years,” said Richard Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator who has known the president for decades. “I think it’s the perfect way for him to decompress from all the horribles of Washington.”
Local residents said they were happy to let the first family vacation in peace.
“We don’t make a fuss,” said Linda Malcolm, a resident of Kiawah Island and the owner of a local bookstore where some members of the Biden family — though not the president — spent time shopping on Sunday. “They deserve some down time, too.”
Ms. Malcolm acknowledged that there had been concerns on the island about potential disruptions from the president’s trip, but she said they were largely unfounded.
Mr. Biden’s flights caused some delays at Charleston International Airport as Joint Base Charleston shares its airfield with the commercial airport. But on his way in, Mr. Biden flew in Marine One from the international airport to a smaller airfield less than half an hour away from where the family stayed, a move that prevented street closures in downtown Charleston.
And the president’s motorcade caused only a small backup of traffic during his sole excursion off the island on Saturday. Curious drivers were quick to whip out their phones, while pedestrians and bicyclists waved cheerily as he passed.
Caitlin Tuten-Rhodes, 32, who like many locals vaguely recalled Mr. Biden’s previous trips to the area as vice president, said Charleston and Kiawah Island had long attracted high-profile celebrities and politicians.
But it’s still a thrill, she said, to know she might bump into Mr. Biden around town.
“How often do you see a president,” Ms. Tuten-Rhodes said, “even if it’s from a distance?”