Bush Starts 10-Day Texas Vacation

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 4, 2006

WACO, Tex., Aug. 3 -- President Bush arrived here Thursday evening to begin a 10-day stretch at his Prairie Chapel ranch, his longest planned period away from Washington during this summer vacation season.

Bush's scheduled week and a half in Texas is a far cry from last year's working vacation, which was shaping up as the longest presidential retreat in more than three decades before it was rudely cut short by Hurricane Katrina after nearly a month.

The image of Bush on an extended stay away from the White House while Katrina flattened much of the Gulf Coast and left New Orleans engulfed by floodwater proved to be a defining moment of his presidency.

The image of a president who critics say is aloof from details and too eager to delegate was only driven home when he ordered Air Force One to fly low over the stricken region so he could get a bird's-eye view of the destruction as he returned to Washington.

"It's devastating, it's got to be doubly devastating on the ground," Bush said as he flew over the area.

"The impact of Katrina was profound," said former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. "It caught a tired White House staff off guard and turned out to be one of the most damaging events of his presidency."

Last year's vacation was even more problematic for Bush because of the protests led by Cindy Sheehan, the peace activist whose son was killed in Iraq. Sheehan camped out on the road leading to Bush's ranch last year promising not to leave until he agreed to meet with her, drawing international news coverage and large numbers of supporters to Crawford, while helping to galvanize opposition to the war. She recently bought five acres near Crawford, which she plans to use as a base for future protests while Bush is in town.

This year, with the crisis in the Middle East at a fever pitch, the carnage in Iraq continuing and even the first hurricane of the year brewing in the Caribbean, the president's schedulers left less room for this year's vacation to cause such political damage.

Before going to his ranch, Bush stopped in McAllen, Tex., where he inspected Border Patrol equipment before delivering a speech in nearby Mission, Tex. He heralded the deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops along the border and called on Congress to enact his stalled proposal to revamp the nation's immigration laws.

Bush said the initiative will work only if it includes both tougher enforcement and a temporary-worker program that would allow low-skill immigrants a legal path into the country. "We have an obligation to secure our borders, and we have an obligation to treat people with dignity and respect," he said.

Over the weekend, Bush is scheduled to meet at his ranch with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Later in the week, he is scheduled to travel to Wisconsin for the day to campaign for Republican congressional candidate John Gard before returning to Washington on Aug. 13.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said that "while everybody recognizes what happened with Katrina" the president's vacation schedule this year is "driven by sheer necessity."

With a large number of GOP congressional seats in play and his party's ability to set the agenda in Congress in jeopardy, Snow said, Bush wants to be sure to be on the road to help raise money and get his message out in hopes of improving his approval ratings, which have been abysmal for much of the past year.

Bush is not the first president to be criticized for spending time away from Washington. More than a century ago, Ulysses S. Grant was pilloried for his retreats to the Jersey Shore. President Bill Clinton often spent vacations at friends' homes in places such as Martha's Vineyard and twice vacationed in Jackson Hole, Wyo., a locale his political handlers said would play well among swing voters.

President Lyndon B. Johnson spent 474 days at his Texas spread during his five-plus years as president, far surpassing the 370 days that Bush has spent in Texas since his election, according to U.S. News & World Report. White House aides are quick to point out that Bush remains in command even when he is far from the Oval Office. He continues to receive his normal security briefings and holds meeting with top aides and foreign leaders during his working vacations. The president also likes to use his down time to mountain-bike around his 1,500-acre ranch and to do chores such as clearing brush.

"We've reached a point in the modern presidency where any vacation the president takes hurts in some way, because the world and the media move so fast," Fleischer said. " . . . The normal things that everyone else does, if the president does it he gets criticized."

While Bush plans to curtail his long stretches away from Washington this year, he still plans to spend most of the coming month out of town. He has planned long weekends at Camp David and the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, for August, before returning to Texas before the Labor Day weekend.

"The president certainly took some hits for being so relentlessly on vacation during Katrina," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist. "One reason to break up the time away is to signal that there is some activity going on there."

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