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.
David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University, suggested that the ranch offered Bush a place of stability in changing times, similar to Calvin Coolidge returning to his family homestead in Plymouth Notch, Vt., in the tumultuous 1920s.
"These attachments to place serve as an anchor against the current of modernity," Greenberg said. "The new adopted home has become sort of proof of stability and constant values."
Brinkley said that Bush's love of Texas may be real, grounded in his childhood days in Midland and Houston, but the ranch itself was pure theater.
"Anytime you're president, you love to get away," he said. "I think it's really his touchstone place. But it got created out of the crucible of a need for image-making. . . . Don't have him as the Yalie cheerleader or the silver-spoon kid from a wealthy family. The image working around him became Crawford. Even the name is a John Wayne or Gary Cooper movie: Crawford with the hay bales. It became this manipulative backdrop."
The message of the ranch, said Vincent J. Cannato, a historian at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, was this: "It's not Washington. It's in the middle of nowhere. It's not trendy. It's not hip. There's no Starbucks there. . . . It's more middle than Middle America."
Asked what the place has meant to Bush, Johndroe said Tuesday: "The ranch has been a place where the president and Mrs. Bush have been able to relax, have friends over and get away from the spotlight of the White House some. . . . It has been a place where he could take some time off."
But Bush will not spend the rest of his life there, contrary to the plans he laid out in 2001. Instead, he and his wife, Laura, will move to Dallas after he leaves office. At an off-the-record fundraiser in Houston in July, he said Laura had made the decision. "I like Crawford," he said. "Unfortunately, after eight years of asking her to sacrifice, I'm now no longer the decision-maker. She'll be deciding."
Cannato thought Bush was likely to hold on to the property anyway, as Reagan did with his California ranch after leaving the White House.
"If he sells the place in 2010, and he and Laura live it up on the social circuit in Dallas, okay. Then he's a big faker," Cannato said. "But I can't see how. He likes being out there."
Bush's time at the ranch ebbed with his popularity, which nosedived in August 2005 in conjunction with two events that took place while he was in Crawford: the demonstration of Sheehan and the debacle of responding to Hurricane Katrina.
Sheehan staged a protest Aug. 6 outside the ranch, joined by about 50 protesters, and pledged to stay until she could meet with the president. Her crusade, and Bush's refusal to meet with her, became a national story in a quiet August and, within three weeks, 8,500 demonstrators on both sides of the raging war debate swarmed into Crawford.
As that debate reached a fever pitch, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29. Bush continued his trip until two days after floodwaters swamped much of New Orleans, stranding thousands.
Since then, Bush's time at the ranch has worked out to 11 percent of his presidency, nearly half what it had been before those twin events.
Through it all, Bush's neighbors provided the president and his entourage with a warm welcome, and some said they have mixed emotions about his leaving. "I think he was one of the best presidents we ever had," said Billy Westerfield, whose own farm is near Bush's property.
At the Red Bull, a souvenir shop in Crawford that sells Bush merchandise, manager Jamie Burgess said she hoped Bush would stick around, for more than just business.
"He's a very nice, courteous man. . . . What you see of him is the way it is," she said. "I think he'll be a good neighbor. I just pray that things will ease up for him. He's been under so much pressure since Day One."
Greenberg predicted that Bush's connection to the Crawford mythos would endure.
"What's amazing to me about Bush . . . is that despite his unpopularity the last three years in particular, and despite his coming under criticism for every aspect of his presidency, the Crawford mythology remains pretty strong," he said.
"The 'compassionate conservative,' the 'uniter, not the divider,' all that has been swept away," Greenberg said. "The Texas cowboy has survived."