NANTUCKET — Everyone on Nantucket has a Joe Biden story.
Just ask the taxi driver who watched him plunge into the icy waters of Children’s Beach on Thanksgiving morning. Or the gaggle of saleswomen at Murray’s Toggery Shop who have sold countless pairs of authentic Nantucket Reds to the Biden bunch. Or the volunteers at the animal shelter who still get visibly giddy when describing the rescue pup who left the island aboard Air Force Two with his new owner, Biden’s eldest son Beau.
The president-elect has celebrated Thanksgiving on Nantucket almost every year since 1975. But on an island with a median home value of $2.2 million and private jets dotting the airport tarmac, an Amtrak-riding senator from Delaware didn’t attract much fanfare at first. It was only after Biden ascended to the presidential ticket of Democratic nominee Barack Obama that the tabloids and locals started to take note.
It seems unlikely that the president-elect will visit the island this Thanksgiving, amid a global pandemic and a tumultuous transition of power. But when he does return, he’ll do so as the 46th president of the United States. Whatever “illusion of real freedom” he once described in his second memoir and enjoyed during his annual off-season visits as a senator and vice president will be long gone.
“We hope he’ll still come by,” said a barista at The Hub, a corner general store downtown, after admitting somewhat bashfully that the first time she served Biden coffee she failed to recognize him at all.
Biden’s romance with Nantucket began 45 years ago on a recommendation from his then-chief of staff, Winchester native Wes Barthelmes. In his memoirs, “Promises to Keep” and “Promise Me, Dad,” Biden notes that the island offered refuge from a deluge of Thanksgiving invitations from family members vying to host Biden and his soon-to-be second wife, Jill, for their first holiday together. The couple strapped Biden’s sons, a 6-year-old Beau and 5-year-old Hunter, into the backseat of a Jeep Wagoneer and drove eight hours north from Wilmington to Hyannis, where they boarded the Hy-Line ferry to the chill and quiet of Nantucket in November.
That maiden voyage became a Thanksgiving tradition that continued through 36 years in the Senate, two unsuccessful runs for the presidency and two terms as vice president in the Obama administration. In his memoirs, Biden’s descriptions of the island read like an ode to humble, small-town life, completely devoid of the stodgy poshness that tends to define Nantucket’s summer social scene.
The family stayed in a series of rental houses, having never purchased property on the island. Their fall sojourns were full of takeout clam chowder, games of fireside checkers, and sprawling lunches at family-friendly taverns. A local named Ted Merriman recalls one time in the 1990s that Biden stopped by his table during a family dinner at the India House just to comment on how much one of the guests looked like his nephew. As the conversation continued, they learned that Biden’s nephew and his doppelganger coincidentally were classmates at Episcopal Academy, a tony private school in suburban Pennsylvania.
Biden also wrote of family portraits snapped in front of a saltbox house on the bluff of Siasconset Beach with an “asking price too rich for a senator’s salary” and a wooden sign out front that read “Forever Wild.” The tradition continued until the house fell victim to coastal erosion five years ago.
For the past 22 years, Bill Puder of the homey pub, Faregrounds, has been tasked with catering the Bidens' Thanksgiving dinner, which Puder says Biden himself picks up each year. “We feel as though you two are part of our family,” reads a 2012 letter to Bill and his wife, signed with “love” from Joe and Jill. The correspondence sits framed in the pub’s foyer within a cluster of Biden portraits.
“It’s an honor that we keep being asked,” said Puder, who prepared six lobsters and a turkey with all the trimmings for the family last year.
Weeks after the 2008 election, the vice president-elect hopped aboard the ferry to the island as he had for decades. But once officially sworn in as vice president, Biden began taking Air Force Two to Nantucket each Thanksgiving. Cargo planes flew ahead with armored vehicles and Secret Service equipment. Airspace was cleared. Secret Service agents swept through pubs — and their trash bins — before casual lunches. A motorcade whisked the second family off to the waterfront estates of prominent Democratic donors like corporate lawyer Louis Susman and billionaire financier David Rubenstein, the only private citizen to own an original copy of the Magna Carta.
Also with higher office came more politics and policy work. Biden wrote that the trip had been a “no-phone zone” all through his years in the Senate. But the 2009 visit was mired in a debate over the Afghan war strategy with Biden sending handwritten memos by secure fax before cutting the trip short for a meeting in the Oval Office, according to Bob Woodward’s book, “Obama’s Wars.” Likewise, Biden missed the traditional shopping trip on Main Street in 2014 to field calls from an anxious Arseniy Yatsenyuk, then-prime minister of Ukraine, who was struggling to fend off an encroaching Vladimir Putin.
Last year, while vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination, Biden visited the island twice, in August and November, and attended fund-raisers hosted by longtime Democratic supporter Elizabeth Bagley, who served as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Portugal. Tickets ranged from $250 to $1,000 a person. (Vice President Mike Pence also flew to the island this summer for a $25,000-a-head lunch on behalf of the Trump campaign.)
The family visits, once unremarkable, were now eagerly chronicled as the “Biden Watch,” in the words of local newspaper The Inquirer and Mirror, with sightings guaranteed at the polar plunge, Turkey Trot, and downtown tree-lighting ceremony. Word on the cobblestone street is that Biden rarely turns down a photo request, a theory supported by an endless gallery posted to Facebook over the years.
Julie Mosgrober, who moved to Nantucket when her husband was stationed there with the US Coast Guard, nabbed her obligatory photo with Biden the day after Thanksgiving. She introduced her 6- and 8-year-old children to the former vice president as he and the family dogs waited for Jill to finish shopping at a store on Main Street.
“He got down on his knee so he could be at their level and told them how his dog Champ was related to wolves,” she said. “When I told him that their dad was now deployed in Saudi Arabia, he thanked the kids for all the sacrifices they made to let their dad serve. He was a private citizen. He wasn’t running for office. He just was talking to us.”
The Bidens have only spent a handful of Thanksgivings off the island in the past four decades, most notably in 2015, the year of his eldest son’s death. Nantucket was particularly beloved by Beau, who proposed to his wife Hallie at the town’s tree lighting and married in its cedar shake Catholic church. Joe and Jill Biden embarked on a diplomatic trip to Croatia and Italy that year to avoid the additional grief that a long weekend on the island might have brought, according to the New York Times.
But Biden was back on the Nantucket streets days after the 2016 election, wearing his iconic aviator sunglasses and bomber jacket, with a German shepherd in tow. This year, the only presence of the president-elect will likely be through a handful of campaign signs spotted on Main Street — two plastered to the windows atop the Black Dog general store and one pinned to the grille of a silver Jeep Wrangler. The Nantucket Police Department has not been contacted about a Biden visit. No Secret Service agent has been spotted ordering breakfast burritos between security sweeps. Biden himself has said publicly his holiday will be spent with just two others. And although the location of that gathering is still unknown, Bill Puder has not received the Thanksgiving text.
“But there is still time,” he piped.