Bush's Time at Ranch in Crawford, Tex., Coming to Quiet End

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

CRAWFORD, Tex., Dec. 30 -- The sun is setting on this rural corner of President Bush's empire.

This week, the president is spending what are expected to be his final days at his family ranch, a craggy 1,583-acre estate here in the Texas heartland that is almost as prominent a symbol of his presidency as the White House itself.

It was here, set against a desiccated landscape and wide-open skies reminiscent of a frontier novel, where the CIA warned Bush of al-Qaeda's intentions in a memo titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US." Here the president made the decision to go to war against Iraq and learned about Hurricane Katrina drowning New Orleans. Here he made nice with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, kissed Saudi leader Abdullah and married off his daughter Jenna. Here he refused to meet with Cindy Sheehan, who demanded to speak with him about the death of her son in Iraq.

The place dubbed Bush's "Western White House" has seen 18 visits by foreign leaders, scores of news conferences and long bike rides in the 100-degree heat, as well as the commander in chief's seemingly ceaseless quest to clear brush. With the approaching handover of power to President-elect Barack Obama on Jan. 20, such moments are coming to a quiet end.

Public attention has now shifted to Hawaii and Obama's vacation activities, while little has been heard from Bush since he arrived in Texas aboard Air Force One. He has made no public appearances, and aides have provided few details about his schedule, other than to say that he is talking to advisers and foreign leaders about the violence in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

At the local middle school's gymnasium, eight miles from the ranch, a shrunken press corps awaits presidential news. One quiet day, a tumbleweed blew past the front door as if on dramatic cue.

Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, gave a terse update Tuesday on Bush: "The president . . . had his intelligence briefing and met with his advisers for -- I think it was over an hour or so, and then made his various phone calls. He's been working from the office and at home at the ranch. I expect he'll work on some trails at the ranch today. I think they've got some friends there as well."

Even Texans would have been hard pressed to find Crawford, a town of 751, on a map when Bush purchased the onetime hog farm in August 1999. But the property carried a particular appeal. For the just-announced presidential candidate, educated at Yale and scion of a well-connected East Coast family, Prairie Chapel Ranch was a symbol of rugged masculinity and attachment to down-home America.

"He thought he was going to be stealing a page from Ronald Reagan's ranch appeal," said Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University. "The weird part of it is, it was going to work for a while."

Bush played his part by mocking journalists who griped about the spartan amenities and punishing summer heat of central Texas and who wistfully recalled sojourns to Kennebunkport, Maine, and Martha's Vineyard to follow Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

"I know a lot of you wish you were in the East Coast, lounging on the beaches, sucking in the salt air," he told reporters in 2001. "But when you're from Texas -- and love Texas -- this is where you come home. It'll be the house where I live in for the rest of my life. I like my own home, and I don't mind the heat."

Whether or not the property was bought for political reasons, there is little doubt that Bush enjoyed visiting. He is on his 77th trip to the ranch, and if he leaves on New Year's Day, as planned, he will have spent 490 of his 2,922 days in office there, said Mark Knoller of CBS News, an unofficial record-keeper of the president's travels.

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