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Trivial (Presidential) Pursuits

In August, the Vineyard becomes celebrity isle and a place for the Clintons to play board games

Walk along the oak-shaded lanes of this seaside town, and you can understand why President Clinton and his family have chosen to vacation here three years in a row. If Martha's Vineyard didn't exist - with its cozy shingled cottages, white picket fences, and perfect gardens - Martha Stewart would have to create it.

But even after a week, many islanders say the first family has not been so much seen as felt.

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"We were in Vineyard Haven the other day, and Chelsea was apparently having ice cream, so there was a big hubbub about that," says Julie Kim of Stamford, Conn., tucking her daughter Nicole into a stroller after relaxing in a small shady park. "Every once in a while, people will stop and gather, and you say, 'Oh, that must be them.' "

The presidential vacation is a timeless ritual, as the nation's chief executive and his family try to lay aside their public personas and become private citizens. Teddy Roosevelt had his hunting trips, posing for photographers behind some deceased wild beast. Ronald Reagan liked to chop wood on his California ranch. George Bush roared his speedboat in the cold waters off Kennebunkport, Maine.

Getting away from it all is the goal, and this year the president has kept a low profile. With dozens of casually dressed, steel-eyed Secret Service men, he has attended a birthday bash in his honor at the home of actors Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. He has sailed on the yacht of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. He has read books (one biography of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and one novel by Jim Lehrer) and played Trivial Pursuit. And he has golfed.

"My son was playing golf yesterday, and he said the president arrived just as he was leaving," says Phyllis Boudreau, among the T-shirts and trinkets at a shop called Tees By the Sea. "Then last night, he was playing miniature golf, and loads of people were there. They all said, 'Ah, you, just just missed the president.' "

"You get excited," adds her daughter, Lois, who owns the shop. "Even if you didn't vote for the guy, you get excited that he's here."

Although they are too dignified to say so, some year-rounders consider the presidential visits a nuisance. Motorcades block the roadways, reservations at the golf course become tenuous. And the crowds.

"The traffic is terrible," says Doug Garron, sitting on the front steps of the white Colonial summer home he has shared with his wife Lorna for 41 years. Friends call him "the honorary mayor of North Water Street." "But to tell the truth, you can get around the traffic," he adds, leading a visitor through his garden and pointing to a private road he owns. "You learn some tricks."

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Of course, with so many celebrities in town (taxi drivers say the Princess of Wales is coming in for the weekend), a gathered crowd doesn't always signal a presidential pizza run.

Take, for instance, the line of parents and toddlers in front of Fligor's bookstore on North Water Street. They didn't spend 2-1/2 hours for copies of Hillary Rodham Clinton's "It Takes a Village." They came to meet Marc Brown, author of the children's book and TV cartoon character Arthur.

For her part, Helene Gagliano is disappointed the president didn't take up her offer of having a joint birthday party this week. After all, they were both vacationing on Martha's Vineyard.

"In the end, I took a picture next to some cardboard pictures of Bill and Hillary and sent it to friends," she laughs, and she held a private party with friends and family. "I figured it was the least he could do, for all the dinner parties that were ruined by my sticking up for him."

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