Down on the Ranch, President Wages War on the Underbrush

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 31, 2005

CRAWFORD, Tex., Dec. 30 -- On most of the 365 days he has enjoyed at his secluded ranch here, President Bush's idea of paradise is to hop in his white Ford pickup truck in jeans and work boots, drive to a stand of cedars, and whack the trees to the ground.

If the soil is moist enough, he will light a match and burn the wood. If it is parched, as it is across Texas now, the wood will sit in piles scattered over the 1,600-acre spread until it is safe for a ranch hand to torch -- or until the president can come home and do the honors himself.

Sometimes this activity is the only official news to come out of what aides call the Western White House. For five straight days since Monday, when Bush retreated to the ranch for his Christmas sojourn, a spokesman has announced that the president, in between intelligence briefings, calls to advisers and bicycling, has spent much of his day clearing brush.

This might strike many Washingtonians as a curious pastime. It does burn a lot of calories. But brush clearing is dusty, it is exhausting (the president goes at it in 100 degree-plus heat), and it is earsplitting, requiring earplugs to dull the chain saw's buzz.

For Bush, who is known to spend early-morning hours hacking at unwanted mesquite, cocklebur weeds, hanging limbs and underbrush only to go back for more after lunch, it borders on obsession.

Aides are corralled to help, although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a frequent guest, has escaped brush duty. "The tradecraft she uses to get out of it is highly confidential, and I can't discuss it," said national security adviser Steven J. Hadley. To date, no visiting foreign leaders have been conscripted.

The president "clears brush like he rides his bike," said deputy press secretary Trent Duffy, who has sawed beside Bush. "He goes at it."

Ronald Reagan chopped wood and rode horses, Bush's father sailed off the shore of Kennebunkport, Maine, and Bill Clinton jogged. For George W. Bush, clearing brush projects the image of a cowboy president, a tough rancher fighting the elements to survive. That is, of course, the White House's projection; the president's critics take a dimmer view.

"Most likely he's doing that to show the media he's got a chain saw," joked Larry Mattladge, who raises Black Angus cows three-quarters of a mile from the Bush ranch and built his fence rows out of cedar posts. "It's a man's thing. Brush clearing is not only for the young at heart, it's for the young. It's to show he's a Texan."

Presidential historian Robert Dallek said: "This is part of his macho image. Obviously this is nothing Bush has to do. He's the son of a rich man who doesn't have to spend his time cutting underbrush."

But some of Bush's neighbors in the Crawford area said they understand his pleasure -- even if he doesn't have to do it. "We do it because we have to," said Zach Arias, who with his wife raises cows on 400 acres about 20 miles from town. "But afterwards, you kind of go, 'Wow. I feel good about what I did today.' " White House counselor Dan Bartlett explained it this way: "It's therapeutic for him, I guess. There's very few things he gets to do hands on."

Clearing brush is a lot like weeding the yard, although on a real ranch it is an economic necessity. In central Texas, cedar and mesquite trees are invaders competing for moisture with grass, gobbling water from the soil and hoarding rain and sunlight on their branches. With his livestock's food supply at stake, a farmer could live or die on how well his brush is cleared. Local agronomists say brush control has been a part of rural Texas since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, when the botanical bandits spread across the arid soil.

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