By Dan Eggen and Carrie A. Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
With a blown kiss out the window of the presidential limousine, George W. Bush departed the White House yesterday, closing out a presidency that spanned the height of popularity and the depths of public disdain.
Bush returned to being a private citizen after seeing President Obama sworn in at the U.S. Capitol. The former president and his wife, Laura, boarded a Marine helicopter for Andrews Air Force Base, where they attended a private, 20-minute sendoff with family and friends who stood beside him even after most of the country stepped away.
Finally, far from the masses who thronged the Mall to celebrate Obama's taking office, the Bushes stepped onto one of the blue-and-gold Boeing 747s that carried him all over the world. This time, however, the plane was no longer designated Air Force One.
He traveled first to his boyhood home town of Midland, Tex., where an estimated 20,000 supporters gathered in Centennial Plaza for a welcome-home rally similar to a goodbye celebration on the same spot eight years earlier.
"The presidency was a joyous experience, but as great as it was, nothing compares with Texas at sunset," Bush said last evening to a crowd waving red, white and blue "W" signs. "Tonight, I have the privilege of saying six words that I have been waiting to say for a while: It is good to be home."
The Bushes were to spend their first night as a former president and first lady at the family ranch in Crawford, Tex.
As Bush prepared to leave Washington, he issued no new presidential pardons in his final hours in office, disappointing prominent conservatives and sentencing-reform advocates but holding true to his tightfisted record on clemency.
On Monday, Bush shortened the prison terms for two Border Patrol agents convicted of shooting an unarmed immigrant in the backside during a 2005 drug raid. Attorneys and supporters of a group of felons including onetime Illinois governor George Ryan (R) and former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards (D) had held out hope that Bush might follow Bill Clinton's lead in issuing a flurry of final pardons on his last day.
Bush's father, former president George H.W. Bush, even wrote a letter on behalf of Edwards to his son. Ryan also garnered pleas for clemency from politicians of both parties, although he has served only 15 months of a 6 1/2 -year prison term for his role in a statewide corruption scandal.
Ryan's attorney, former Illinois governor James R. Thompson (R), said that his client has diabetes and high blood pressure, and "has lost his office, his reputation, his pension and his Social Security."
"I'm very disappointed, and the Ryan family is devastated," Thompson said yesterday, adding that he will renew the pardon request with Obama.
Bush began his last day immersed in the pomp and ceremony of a departing president, making a few final phone calls to friends before welcoming Obama to the White House with a few hearty pats on the arm. Bush and Obama posed with their wives for the cameras; Michelle Obama bore a special gift for Laura Bush.
Then the two couples repaired to the Blue Room for coffee with soon-to-be Vice President Biden, his wife, Jill, and members of Congress. Bush also followed recent tradition by leaving a private note for Obama in the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, aides said.
Obama gave Bush a final handshake and a hug as the now-former president prepared to depart the Capitol, and the Obamas and the Bidens waved as the helicopter lifted into the air.
The Andrews sendoff and the flight from Washington were closed to the press corps, with whom Bush has had a rocky and often distant relationship. Only a handful of journalists and photographers showed up for a former president who once lured the attention of planeloads of correspondents. About 1,000 people gathered in one of the cavernous hangars used to store presidential airplanes and heard extensive remarks by former vice president Richard B. Cheney, who was in a wheelchair because of a moving-related injury.
The traveling party was a gathering of old friends, including former commerce secretary Donald L. Evans, former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales and former political adviser Karl Rove. Bush's father and mother, daughters and other relatives were also aboard the flight.
The goodbyes brought an end to a tenure that Bush himself described as "a period of consequence," when the United States suffered its worst terrorist attack, launched two divisive wars and stumbled under the weight of a collapsing global economy. Bush's popularity was similarly tumultuous, from almost universal approval after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to his fall from public grace during a troubled second term.
Bush offered relatively few regrets at the end and spent much of the past two months forcefully defending his administration's performance on a variety of subjects, including the decision to invade Iraq and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
Much of Bush's immediate attention will be focused on fundraising and organizing efforts for the $300 million George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, which will include his White House archives, a museum and a think tank focused on the issues dominant during his presidency.
"I don't think he is the kind of person who is able to just chill out," said Bush's last press secretary, Dana Perino.
Dan Bartlett, Bush's longtime counselor who was among those accompanying him on the trip home, joked in a recent interview: "We're all kind of fearful what the new world will look like. He might be calling a lot."
"He'll be active, but I think he'll be respectful of the fact that there really is only one president at a time," Bartlett said.
Bush's departure ceremony at Andrews was marred by one detail, as the red carpet laid out in his honor refused to stay in place in the gusts of frigid wind. In the end, the carpet was removed, leaving empty tarmac instead.
Staff writer R. Jeffrey Smith contributed to this report.