National News

A Frosty Summer for Dershowitz on Liberal Martha’s Vineyard

Posted July 3, 2018 9:03 p.m. EDT
Updated July 3, 2018 9:07 p.m. EDT

CHILMARK, Mass. — For years, Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer and professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, has been a garrulous fixture in this handsome, gray-shingled town on Martha’s Vineyard. He holds court from a rocking chair on the porch at the Chilmark General Store, drinking coffee and greeting fellow regulars. He strolls down Lucy Vincent Beach, gabbing on his cellphone along the way.

But this summer, Dershowitz says that because he has expressed views that back President Donald Trump, he no longer feels so welcome on the Vineyard, a summertime epicenter of progressive values, money and sheer Democratic power in the United States.

“I never thought I would see McCarthyism come to Martha’s Vineyard, but I have,” Dershowitz wrote in an opinion column last week in The Hill, revealing that he has been on the receiving end of a social chill from friends here.

“For them, it is enough that what I have said about the Constitution might help Trump,” he wrote. “So they are shunning me and trying to ban me from their social life on Martha’s Vineyard.”

Acquaintances and friends of Dershowitz on the island confirmed that his increasingly vocal defenses of Trump on cable news have not been well received in these social circles, particularly in Chilmark, one of the most liberal enclaves of this liberal island — and the town where Dershowitz has owned a home for a quarter-century.

One Democratic couple who is used to running into Dershowitz at dinner parties said they have already been asking themselves: What are we going to do when we see Alan this summer?

“There’s been a lot of conversation,” Rose Styron, a poet and longtime Vineyard resident who is the widow of author William Styron, said delicately, “and I have heard people express anger with him.”

On the eve of Independence Day, Dershowitz brought a simmering national debate over politics and social behavior to an island that prides itself on civility and diversity. For weeks, people who fiercely oppose the Trump administration’s immigration policies have engaged in social shaming, confronting members of the administration in public places. In a Washington restaurant on Monday, a woman with a toddler approached Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and told him to resign over his policies and his repeated spending scandals. Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, was interrupted at a Mexican restaurant last month as protesters chanted during her meal. Employees at a Virginia restaurant urged the owner to ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, to leave in response to Trump administration policies, including the deeply unpopular practice of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.

Now the debate has reached far beyond the capital, to a place that has long been both an escape for the wealthy and an open forum for intellectual debate, where figures like Valerie Jarrett, Vernon Jordan and Carly Simon can be spotted playing golf, chatting at a cocktail party, or picking up local vegetables at a farm stand. On the Vineyard, Dershowitz is one of the most outspoken defenders of Trump, in a place frequented for decades by Kennedys, Clintons, Obamas and other Democratic royalty.

“It’s rare that I meet a real Trump supporter among the summer crowd,” said Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and year-round resident of the Vineyard.

Dershowitz is not the first high-profile figure on this island whose views have been met with disapproval: In 1972, an artist was reported to have tried to throw Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary who was an architect of the Vietnam War, overboard from the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.

In a phone interview from his Chilmark home, Dershowitz said that he has not supported Trump’s political agenda, but has merely defended the president’s civil liberties, as he would for any person. Dershowitz said that a Vineyard friend who is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had led an email campaign against him; he declined to name the professor.

“There’s a whole cabal of people who have decided that they will try to get people to stop interacting with me,” Dershowitz said. “The campaign has utterly failed. It’s affected my life zero. I’m not looking for sympathy.”

But he said that something had shifted on the island over the years, that opposing viewpoints were less welcome. “Anybody who wants to debate me, fine,” Dershowitz said, suggesting that he might set up chairs for debate at the Chilmark Community Center and invite anyone to attend.

On Tuesday, as visitors to the island disembarked the ferry in Oak Bluffs for the Fourth of July holiday, a spit of a beach nearby was already full of sunbathers. Some people sought relief from the 83-degree heat (and an unwanted touch of humidity) in waist-deep water.

One couple sitting on a bench as they watched the ferry come in said the island had grown less welcoming. Since the 2016 election, their conservative leanings have felt ever more out of step, they said, on an island whose political orientation is as blue as the sky above them. And they could sympathize with Dershowitz. After all, this island, which swells in the summer to more than 100,000 from the usual 15,500 year-round residents, picked Hillary Clinton with 71 percent of the vote.

“This is a very liberal island, this is like Vermont,” said the woman, an island resident with tight gray curls, who declined to give her name because she did not want to alienate her neighbors any more than she apparently already had. “It’s their way or the highway.”

The woman said she felt as if she had been ostracized from social events. “I remember one conversation and one of our friends who was a woman said, ‘only stupid people could vote for Trump, and they were the people in the middle of the country.'”

At the Chilmark General Store, where petunia baskets swing from a vast wooden front porch, families preparing for their Fourth of July barbecues emerged Tuesday with pie boxes, baguettes and bags of locally grown greens.

“He’s a longtime Chilmarker — everyone knows him,” said Marianne Neill, a retired owner of a screen-printing business who said she leans liberal, of Dershowitz. “I know some people aren’t very happy with his defense of the president.”

But she said the area has a conservative streak, too, and his account of being ostracized does not square with the live-and-let-live town that she knows.

“I don’t agree with him,” she said, but “I’m not shunning him.”

Tony and Hope Gay, who were eating pizza on the porch, said escaping the crush of political news and rhetoric was part of the appeal of coming to the island. Somehow, it seemed, it had followed them anyway.

“I don’t come here to discuss politics,” said Tony Gay, who said he is a moderate Republican and works as an energy executive. He added of Dershowitz: “He may be taking himself a little too seriously.”

As for Dershowitz, he said that he was off to two parties Tuesday evening, another one on the Fourth of July. He will soon celebrate his 80th birthday with a bash, he said, adding, “All my real friends are going to come.”