Ready or not, coastal Delaware will play host to the first family's resort getaways
By Bill Newcott | Illustration by Rob Waters
From the April 2021 issue
Hey, neighbors, meet Joe.
Like a lot of us, Joe works in Washington, D.C., and has a little getaway place here near the beach. His wife, Jill, is a teacher and they have a lot of kids and grandkids who ramble around the six-bedroom place they bought about four years ago.
Joe’s kind of an unassuming guy, so you might not even notice him if not for the concrete barriers at the end of his street whenever he’s around, the enormous helicopter that will be flying him into town for the next four years, the fleet of black Suburbans that accompany him everywhere he goes, and the Men in Black who surround him when he ducks into Lori’s Oy Vey Cafe on Baltimore Avenue for takeout.
Chances are you’ll especially notice Joe when you try to drive to Gordons Pond this summer and find yourself part of not only the usual caravan of cars heading for the state park — but also an untold number of gawkers slowing down, craning their necks, and hoping to catch a glimpse of Joe Biden, president of these United States of America.
“Throughout our careers, Jill and I have dreamed of being able to buy a place at the beach … where we can bring the whole family,” Biden said in 2017 when the couple bought the beach house on Farview Road in North Shores.
“We feel very lucky that we’re now able to make that happen.”
Initial reports were that Joe and Jill were looking for a place at the (horrors!) Jersey Shore. But apparently even former vice presidents can be lured by favorable tax rates. After 44 years of the Washington rat race — including Biden’s 36 years as a senator and eight as Barack Obama’s veep — it looked like those crazy kids were about to finally settle down.
But history had something else in mind. Barely three months after the Bidens bought their dream getaway, the city of Char-lottesville, Va., erupted amid something called the Unite the Right Rally. White supremacists marched with torches. A counterprotester was killed. Joe Biden cast his eyes to North Shore’s private beach down the street, then back to the nation’s capital, and decided his country needed him one more time.
During Biden’s vice presidential years, until he and Jill bought their new house, the couple frequently stayed with friends in North Shores. Even for the first six months after he left Washington — with Secret Service protection still in tow — beach trips remained low-key.
Fresh from his 2020 election victory, the president-elect spent Thanksgiving here, and the family was back in town for New Year’s Eve. But as of this writing, Joe and Jill have yet to pay a presidential visit to their beach home.
In the old days, Vice President Biden most often would arrive by small aircraft at Eagle Crest Aerodrome along Route 1 north of Nassau, and a mini-motorcade would whisk him to the beach. Aside from the presence of a few hulking black SUVs, the neighbors barely noticed he was there. After the departure of his Secret Service detail in early summer of 2017, the Bidens virtually blended into the community — to the degree that one of the most famous faces in the country could pull that off.
“You’d see them out walking their dogs,” recalls Gillian Daniels, a North Shores neighbor. “My daughter was out there one day petting [the one named] Major.
“It wasn’t unusual to see Joe at GreenMan juice bar on Wilmington Avenue, just sitting there, drinking a strawberry smoothie. Often there’d be nobody there with him. It was like he was a relative who suddenly got a whole lot more famous.
“A lot of times you’d see him out riding his bike. Without a helmet, I might add. I’d think, ‘You know, you’re a former vice president. You really ought to be wearing a helmet!’
“I guess he’ll be wearing a helmet from now on.”
What’s not all that’s about to change at the new home of the Summer White House. At a recent briefing with the Secret Service, one message prevailed: If you thought security was tight around Joe Biden before, get ready for security on steroids.
Interviewing Secret Service officials is a frustrating business. On the record they’re happy to tell you all about themselves: How long they’ve been with the Treasury Department, where they grew up, where they’ve been stationed. But the minute they get to the stuff you really want to know — How will the president travel to coastal Delaware? How big a security perimeter will there be around the house? Will the commander in chief still be able to go biking along the Gordons Pond trail? — everything is suddenly off the record.
That’s not to say the Men in Black aren’t friendly enough. Jim Henry is the special agent in charge of the Secret Service office in Philadelphia, responsible for protecting the Bidens when they’re at the beach. For one thing, he can’t seem to say enough nice things about our state and local police, who will have a surprisingly large role in protecting the nation’s leader.
“You often hear that the Secret Service is in charge of protection of the president,” Henry says. “Well, that’s true by statute. But the reality is it’s a partnership. We really relied on our partners in Delaware while President Biden was vice president, so we already have good relationships with them. Since March, when we started providing protection for then-candidate Biden, the process has been seamless.”
There are all kinds of security considerations for presidents when they wander off the White House grounds, and each situation is unique. The Bidens’ vacation home is far from the biggest house in North Shores, nor is it as modest as the low-lying bungalows that stubbornly resist being torn down in favor of new, opulently beachy pleasure palaces. There are, however, lots of sheltering trees everywhere you look. Expect to see Secret Service agents patrolling behind them. The Lewes-and-Rehoboth Canal passes less than two blocks from the house, and a marsh-shrouded channel leads from behind the property to Gordons Pond. Anyone who visited Kennebunkport, Maine, during the Bush presidencies or Palm Beach, Fla., during the Trump years will tell you the waters in and around those sites often hosted flotillas of armed speed boats, and there’s every reason to expect the waterways around North Shores will see similar escalation, especially when the Bidens are in residence.
Full-time residents already know they should plan extra time when driving somewhere in the summer, and if the first family is in town, they may want to double down. Streets are often completely closed — nobody allowed in or out — for up to a half-hour before the president’s motorcade passes through, even if he’s just heading for a hot dog at Gus & Gus Place.
Luckily for area beachgoers, North Shores has its own private beach. You’ll know if the Bidens are planning to catch some rays on the sand if you see Secret Service agents in what North Shores resident Daniels described as their “not-so-Secret-Service” beach attire: khakis and Hawaiian shirts.
Even if you’re a couple of miles down the shoreline, there’ll be one sure-fire way of knowing if the president is in town: Those ever-present banner-towing airplanes will be missing (the Secret Service is super-strict about the air space above presidential residences).
Otherwise, it appears the day-to-day impact of the Bidens’ residency will be minimal: A recent drive-by on a rainy Friday morning revealed nothing more than two mid-size SUVs blocking the driveway.
Most people want to take it in stride,” says North Shores resident Daniels. “Others say, ‘Ah, it’s too much!’ The last time the Bidens were here, the Secret Service set up a roadblock that went halfway up a friend’s circular driveway.
“I think some people would rather the security moved out of the neighborhood and out to Ocean Drive [the road that leads to North Shores and Gordons Pond] — but, really, when the summer comes, how could you hope to handle all the people driving to the state park?”
One thing is nearly certain to change. The drive from Eagle Crest Aerodrome, even though it’s relatively short, nevertheless involves many local twists and turns. From now on the presidential helicopter almost certainly will use the parking lot at Gordons Pond for shuttling Biden to and from the area.
Understand, Marine One is no whirlybird traffic copter. The Sikorsky VH-class helicopters that have flown presidents since the 1970s are absolute monsters — 72 feet long, 21,500 pounds, loud and disruptive. Last summer, Daniels happened to be in Palm Beach at the same time then-President Trump’s Marine One was on the lawn at his Mar-a-Lago estate, 3 miles down the beach.
“You could hear it all the way up in Palm Beach, and it was just idling,” says Daniels. “I’m not going to love it when it’s a couple of blocks away from my house!”
The decades-old aircraft — the president always travels with an identical decoy helicopter, and sometimes more — are due to be replaced with an even bigger version this summer. Despite its 21st-century gadgetry, no one is expecting the new Marine One to have a “whisper mode.”
o far, local businesses have been generally slow in jumping on the Biden Bandwagon. Maybe things will change as the summer crowds arrive, but on a recent walk down Rehoboth Avenue I was a little disappointed by the absence of even “Biden Town” T-shirts in the windows.
The truth is, before we see a cascade of Biden Burgers, Cup o’ Joes or even Jill-O shots at local bars, there are those who suspect the local restaurant establishment may need some time to warm up to the new first couple.
“Actually,” one restaurant industry figure told me, as COVID restrictions remain in place, “I believe our local restaurants are more concerned with simply staying open and paying their bills.”
There’s also the undeniable, deeply conservative history of coastal Delaware to consider. The Bidens are, in essence, part of the relatively recent influx of moderate-to-liberal city folk to descend on this area. If you’re a longtime business owner here, I was told more than once, in the recent election you were more likely to be traveling the Trump Train than Ridin’ with Biden.
Still, I knew I could count on The Ice Cream Store, the place near the boardwalk that features hundreds of flavors, including Better Than Sex and Boogers.
“We’ll be having a special flavor to celebrate the president,” says owner Chip Hearn. “Biden Whitehouse Cherry has a sweet, luscious African vanilla base with sweet maraschino cherries.” Plus, there’s a dog bowl on the sidewalk in case Major gets thirsty.
And Lori’s Cafe on Baltimore Avenue is introducing a Joe and Jill sandwich called “The Biden” (half tuna salad for him; half chicken salad for her). “Jill is so sweet; such a real person,” says cafe owner Lori Kline. “I happen to have her e-mail address, because she orders from here at the cafe, and I would never, ever, ever use it inappropriately. But the day they won the election I shot her an email, just saying, ‘Hey, Lori’s Cafe wishes you all the best; you guys are really gonna rock the White House.’
“Well, she sent me a message back that very day: ‘Loved hearing from you — pure joy!’ That was so amazing, and it shows how they feel like part of the community.”
Then there’s Browseabout Books, a frequent outing destination for the new first couple over the past few years. The shop already has a nice Biden section, complete with books by Joe (“Promise Me, Dad”) and Jill (“Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops”), a Joe Biden action figure and, curiously but irresistibly, a Joe Biden scented candle. My favorite item: “Hot Cup of Joe,” a Joe Biden beefcake coloring book featuring “America’s Sexiest Moderate.”
“We’ve always had this section,” a staffer tells me. “He’s our biggest celebrity.”
Summer White House” has a nice ring to it, conjuring up images of Harry Truman in Key West and FDR in Warm Springs, Ga. It also sounds good to Biden’s friend and Senate successor, Chris Coons.
“Presidents need a place that grounds them,” says Coons, himself a frequent Rehoboth Beach visitor. “It’s a place where their family gathers; a place of respite from the challenges of Washington, D.C. Presidents as far back as Thomas Jefferson had vacation spots where they could get away from it all.
“I also think it’s going to be terrific for Delaware and Rehoboth Beach. It’s going to highlight the ways in which the beach is not just a key for the Delaware shore, but also for the whole region. I’m excited for the awareness it’ll bring to the whole country — not to mention the international press — what a jewel the Delaware beaches are.”
Despite the inevitable limitations being president will impose on Biden’s freedom to wander Rehoboth like he used to, Coons is confident we’ll still see a lot of our most famous local.
“He did a remarkably good job as vice president of managing the challenge of having a 24/7 detail yet getting out and getting to Grotto and getting to Dolle’s and Double Dippers.
“Yes, his security is of national concern, but I’m pretty sure he’ll find a way. He loves to get out of the car and dive into the crowd. I don’t expect that to change.”
During a 2019 campaign fundraiser here, Joe himself hinted that we’ll be seeing a lot of him — and the inevitable hassle that goes with it.
“I think you’re going to open the paper in spring or summer 2021 and say, ‘My God, what are those helicopters doing here? My God, where are all of those Secret Service agents?
“‘Why the hell did we support this guy? Holy mackerel!’
“So, just in case, I apologize ahead of time.”
The Secret Service’s Henry says he sympathizes.
“We’re very sensitive to the concerns,” he insists. “We try to minimize the impact that a presidential visit will have. But our priority is still the protection of the president.”
In other words, to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart trying to reason with Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca”: The problems of us coastal Delawareans might not amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but at least someone is thinking about the beans’ feelings.
Here’s looking at you, Joe.