Clinton faces the hard task of taking life easy

WASHINGTON - Picture the scene. As the sun sets, the bars begin to fill with wealthy yachtsmen, cocktails in hand. Deep-sea fishing boats gently rise at their moorings. But out there, on the beach, a large fretful figure stalks up and down, cellular phone in fist, writes Phil Reeves.

Yesterday saw the official start of President Bill Clinton's summer vacation on Martha's Vineyard, 100 trendy and expensive square miles off the coast of Massachusetts where one of the more persistent allegations against the presidential character will be tested: that he is a workaholic, incapable of taking time off.

Ronald Reagan used to escape the madding crowd by chopping wood on his Californian ranch. George Bush preferred fishing off Maine. Whatever their other faults, both men knew how to enjoy themselves. Mr Clinton has no residence apart from the White House. He has not had a proper holiday in four years, and he has yet to prove that he knows how to behave.

Last week he gave his staff a scare by suggesting that instead of taking 10 days off he might return to Washington after a week. He later changed his mind, but White House observers are sceptical that he will succeed in staying away for the allotted time.

This is despite the fact that Martha's Vineyard satisfies many of his requirements. Although there is no McDonald's to feed his penchant for fast food, there is the Farm Neck Golf Club, a championship course where he has booked a game every day. The neighbours are also the sort with whom the rather star-struck Clintons like to rub shoulders: Billy Joel, Jacqueline Onassis, Carly Simon, Art Buchwald, Walter Cronkite, Spike Lee and more.

No one in the presidential entourage is in much doubt that Mr Clinton needs a break. He has just completed a frantic week of half-work half-play, in which he met the Pope, unveiled his health-care reforms to state governors and played golf with former president Gerald Ford. But, burdened by his battle over the budget and the nagging question of Bosnia, he has become snappy of late. Twice recently he bellowed at his staff - when aides forgot his briefcase and his telephone numbers.

The Clintons are staying at a seaside home belonging to the former US defence secretary, Robert McNamara, a lavish spread set among the island's million-dollar estates, quaint restaurants, and exclusive yacht clubs. It has easy access to a private beach, although how easy moving around the rest of the island will be is another matter. The 'body-watchers' from the press will be there in force, as will a horde of Secret Service agents and crowds of tourists. Being the height of the season, the island population has swollen to 80,000. However, not every islander will be there to greet him. If Mr Clinton has nothing else to worry about as he pads around the beach, he can always ponder the misfortune of the local Gay Head Wampanoag Indian tribe, who are forced to leave the island every summer because of high rents during the tourist season.