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A Smooth Cut From Photo Op to Bill Signing

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008

Heckuva few weeks for Bill Wright, concertmaster violinist in high school turned biblical literature major turned chief executive of a lawn-mower company.

President Bush hustled over to Frederick last month for a half-hour visit to Wright Manufacturing, where he talked about the need for an economic stimulus package while on one of Wright's stand-on mowers, whose origins date to a brainstorming meeting in 1993 at a Wendy's.

Bush apparently had such a good time on the mower -- spinning around in a circle, steering it directly at reporters but not hitting them -- that his staff invited Wright to the White House last week to watch as the stimulus package was signed into law.

"It's been a blessing to be part of this unforeseen thing that has happened," Wright said.

But as presidential visits go, this one was not entirely out of the blue. In fact, Wright and his team -- like hosts to most presidential photo-ops -- were subject to a thorough screening process that ultimately helped the president create an image to win over more political support for the stimulus package. That the president delights in doing yard work at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., may have helped somewhat.

"I think they were looking for a company in the area that is part of the economy not tied to dot-coms or anything like that, but a steady-as-she-goes-type industry," Wright said. "I believe there was a vetting process going on for some time before we knew anything. They liked our story."

And that story, in the eyes of White House officials, is one of old-fashioned American entrepreneurship. Wright started the company more than 20 years ago, originally as a lawn-care business. The company has incorporated manufacturing principles that reduce waste, and it has taken on the likes of John Deere with an innovative product -- the stand-up mower -- that has changed the way people cut grass.

Stand-up mowing gets to more places than a sit-down mower without having to walk miles and miles a day. Also, it's sorta fun. Wright has sold upward of 40,000 stand-up mowers, which range from $5,000 to $9,000. Bush seemed smitten by all these facts, which lined up well with his desire to give breaks to people like Wright so they can, theoretically, buy more equipment, expand their businesses faster, hire more people, and jump-start the economy. Turn on the klieg lights. Press record.

"Let me tell you why I'm here," Bush said. "This man started his own business. He's a manufacturer, he employs over a hundred people, and he represents the backbone of the American economy." Bush went on to note that a stimulus package early in his administration had helped Wright. "He bought some equipment and made his firm more productive, kept him in business. And that's the same spirit that needs to be in this next growth package."

Wright, who didn't want to discuss his politics, was impressed by Bush's interest in his business, which he described as sincere. He thinks the incentives in Bush's plan will, indeed, help him buy more equipment.

Wright was also amazed by how well Bush handled the mower. Initially the idea of having the president ride around scared the Secret Service, Wright said. Apparently the security detail does not have fond memories of Bush falling off a Segway scooter.

But Bush was fearless.

"Start that sucker up," he told Wright. Bush jumped on board. "He seems to have a mechanical ability and dexterity that came into play immediately," Wright said.

Bush drove the mower forward and backward six feet. He asked how to do a zero-radius turn. He did a 90-degree turn first, to warm up. "He drove straight at the press, just shy of them, kind of slightly in jest," Wright said. "It didn't scare anybody." Then he backed up again, sashaying into a 360-degree turn. "He shut the engine off without asking me about anything," Wright said. "And then he made just over a four-minute speech to the nation."

When Wright and Shawn Wolf, the company's president, visited the White House for the signing ceremony last week, they learned a picture of Bush on the lawn mower was hanging in the West Wing. Wolf said that when he saw the picture, "It seemed so strange that our mower was there in the White House."

Wright said, "it's apparently been hanging up there three or four weeks. We hope that he remembers us and our lawn mower, and we hope to see more people standing up mowing."

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