NANTUCKET, Mass. — Helicopters have been buzzing over the island’s boutiques and beaches for days. Military aircraft unloaded government cars and other heavy cargo earlier this week. And a wave of clean-cut Secret Service agents has filled otherwise quiet luxury inns.
President Joe Biden is in town for Thanksgiving, with more than just his family in tow.
“Team after team after team of people come through with jeans and T-shirts, but then you notice they have a little clipboard with the White House insignia,” said Jack Fritsch, who runs the Antiques Depot just near the local ferry drop-off. “You recognize the haircuts. They’re Secret Service agents.”
The Bidens’ decision to spend Thanksgiving on Nantucket this year renews a family tradition that dates to 1975, when Biden and his wife-to-be, Jill, spent their first holiday together. In his memoir, “Promise Me, Dad,” Biden said the couple had multiple invitations to Thanksgiving dinner that year. Instead of disappointing anyone, they decided to spend the holiday on the island with Biden’s two young boys, Beau and Hunter, at the recommendation of his chief of staff, Wes Barthelmes.
“‘What you need is a nuclear Thanksgiving,’” Biden wrote that Barthelmes told him. “Meaning the nuclear family alone. Only Wes Barthelmes was a Boston guy, so what he actually said was ‘nucle-aah Thanksgiving.’”
Now, the Bidens have a far more expansive family along for the trip — including children, grandchildren and in-laws. So they are staying in a home they have visited in the past, that of David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group private equity firm.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki deflected a question this week about the president’s decision to stay at a billionaire’s home after having run as champion of the middle class and criticizing the rich for not paying their fair share.
“This is a time to put politics aside, spend time with your loved ones, and talk about what you’re grateful for,” Psaki said.
Before he was president, Biden managed to blend in with the local crowds. Residents said they might see him walking cobblestone roads near the harbor in search of a coffee or taking a plunge in the icy waters of the Atlantic to celebrate the holiday.
“Obviously when he was senator there wasn’t that much commotion,” Fritsch said. Even as vice president, “no one minded.”
But as president, Biden brings a dizzying array of security personnel, members of the media and White House officials, not to mention a parade of family members: his children, Ashley and Hunter; Hunter’s wife, Melissa; grandchildren Naomi, Finnegan, Maisy, Natalie, Hunter Biden II and Beau; and Naomi’s fiance, Peter Neal.
“There’s a little bit of excitement,” said Noah Karberg, assistant manager of Nantucket Memorial Airport.
He noted that the island has welcomed former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Vice President Mike Pence. Still, he asked his staff to stay a little later than usual for the arrival of Air Force One on Tuesday night.
“We get to handle a really big aircraft,” he said.
Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., said his phone line has been inundated with calls from residents describing the additional security presence on the island.
“These are people who are used to famous people coming and going,” said Keating, who represents Nantucket as well as Martha’s Vineyard, where the Obamas own a home. “But I guess it’s just the entourage.”
The Bidens took a break from Thanksgiving in Nantucket in 2015, just six months after Beau Biden died of brain cancer at age 46. They went to Rome that year instead. The family has returned to the island occasionally since then but did not spend Thanksgiving on the island in 2019 because of the travel commitments of Biden’s presidential campaign. Last year, they stayed in Rehoboth, Delaware, because of concerns about the pandemic.
“People missed him, but mostly it was sympathy,” Fritsch said.
One thing the president will not be able to escape during his holiday getaway are reminders of the labor shortages that have hit employers nationwide, including the local Faregrounds Restaurant & Pudley’s Pub, where patrons are welcomed with a sign warning of potential delays.
Bill Puder, owner of Faregrounds, still remembers nearly two decades ago when an unfamiliar Jill Biden called the restaurant and asked if it would cater Thanksgiving dinner for her family.
“I didn’t even know who he was,” Puder said of the then-senator.
Puder said the Bidens have regularly chosen his restaurant, which is decorated with Boston sports memorabilia, to cater their Thanksgiving meal. They tend to get the usual: turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, yams and pies. When he did not receive an order from the Bidens in 2019, he called the first lady to be sure.
“It went to an answering machine and she called me right back and said, ‘No, I’m sorry, I should’ve told you,’” Puder said.
This year, instead of cooking for the Bidens, Puder has another task: cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 100 members of the Secret Service. He has already encountered many agents and Massachusetts state police in the days leading up to the holiday.
“You can tell who they are because they say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’” Puder said. “They say, ‘That’s how we’re trained.’ I say, ‘All right.’”
Still, he emphasized that locals were accustomed to famous visitors and rarely became starstruck. If anything, a president was unlikely to stoke the kind of excitement elicited by local celebrities.
“Belichick has come in here,” Puder said with a smile, referring to Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots.