By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 11, 2009
DALLAS -- The new couple at 10141 Daria Place accepted an invitation to a neighborhood dinner party last month. The guest list totaled eight. The main dish was chicken potpie. George and Laura Bush left their cul-de-sac in the back of a dark sedan, exited through a Secret Service checkpoint and rode down streets bordered by lawn signs adorned with gigantic W's to welcome them home.
It had been a bad week for the country. President Obama spoke on television about the burdens he had inherited in office: anti-American sentiment, two wars, a recession. But it had been a good week at 10141 Daria Place. The Bushes shared stories over dinner about their return to Texas after eight years in Washington. They had improved their sprinkler system and hung custom-made green drapes. Neighbors had brought over homemade cookies and a potted houseplant.
Not until late in the dinner party did the former president speak in any depth about his two terms in the White House. He told one of his favorite stories, about a trip to Bucharest, Romania, in 2002. More than 200,000 people had come to hear him speak in a town square, he said. The sky turned dark. A cold rain fell. The Romanian president introduced him and -- look at that! A huge rainbow emerged on the horizon, and the Romanians burst into applause.
"Magical," Bush said.
The presidency that is remembered on Daria Place bears little resemblance to the one that most of the country continues to blame for its problems. Bush left Washington on Jan. 20 with two-thirds of Americans disapproving of his job performance -- one of the worst ratings ever for an outgoing U.S. president. In his return to private life, he has maintained tranquility by adhering to a basic philosophy:
He lives squarely in the remaining 33 percent.
Bush works with a dozen aides from his administration, socializes with friends he has known for decades and lives in a conservative neighborhood that voted for him -- both times -- by a ratio greater than 2 to 1. And while the rest of the world mulls and debates his legacy, Bush has told friends that he prefers not to use the "L word." He dismisses analysis of his presidency as premature, regrets little and refrains from engaging in the snippety back-and-forth between the Obama administration and Bush loyalists such as Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. Bush feels content with his presidency, friends said. Now he will try to explain his two terms by writing a book and building a presidential center at Dallas's Southern Methodist University so that history will have the means to judge him fairly.
"Over the course of being president for eight years, you become, in some respects, immune to all the noise out there," said Dan Bartlett, who was a senior aide to Bush for more than a decade. "He's secure in the place he's in. He's confident in the decisions he made. There's none of that 'Shoulda, woulda, coulda.' "
His security is maintained by a daily routine that, intentionally or not, barricades him from the disapproving two-thirds of the nation. The 43rd president spends most weekends with his wife at their isolated ranch in Crawford, Tex., where he likes to wake up early, roam the 1,600 acres with a chainsaw and cut new bike trails. Most of his weekdays are spent 95 miles north, in Preston Hollow, an upper-class section of Dallas where he lived for seven years before becoming governor of Texas in 1995. He has declined to give interviews, except to discuss baseball or his book, and neighbors remain silent so as not to violate his privacy.
About once each week, Bush travels to give a speech or raise money for his $300 million presidential center, but he always moves inside an insulated bubble. On a trip to Calgary, Alberta, last month, he flew into town on a private jet and ate in a private room at a restaurant with three friends and the Secret Service. Eighty police officers provided extra security and closed streets for his motorcade so that he could cruise through downtown to a luncheon where 1,500 guests had paid $400 to hear him talk about "eight momentous years in the Oval Office," according to the invitation. The 250 protesters who waited to catch a glimpse of Bush instead settled for hurling their shoes at his picture.
In Washington, Bush spoke longingly of a quiet post-presidency that would allow him to bring Laura coffee in bed and meander into work around 9 a.m., but he has struggled to slow down, friends said. Bush almost always arrives at his Dallas office by 7:30 a.m., a few minutes before many of his employees. He works on his book with the help of a speechwriter, leaves for a late afternoon bike ride and spends his evenings reading or watching televised golf or baseball. Neither he nor Laura likes to cook, so they have relied on food brought by friends or prepared meals from EatZi's, a local market.
Their 1.13-acre property -- valued at about $2.4 million -- is cocooned by 40 acres of private land and a trout-filled lake. Two oak trees shade the front yard. The Secret Service occupies a house next door. Entrance into the cul-de-sac is restricted by a barrier of orange cones, two police cruisers and four Secret Service agents who scan the perimeter with binoculars. The Bushes plan to install a permanent gate outside the cul-de-sac later this year.
Until then, some neighbors have decided to treat 10141 Daria Place as just another house in Preston Hollow, despite all indications otherwise. The day after the Bushes arrived, the local Cub Scout troop visited their cul-de-sac as part of its annual drive to collect canned food. The troop's supervising parent, Nancy Burke, drove over to Daria Place a few days in advance to ask the Secret Service for clearance.
Sorry, the agents said.
Burke stopped by twice more and received the same answer before finally winning approval from a scheduling aide in Bush's office. An hour before she took the boys to Bush's house, Burke met with them to discuss logistics. Only 30 people could enter the cul-de-sac. The Scouts, ages 7 to 11, needed to wear their full uniforms. A raffle determined which two children would receive Bush's cans. Burke taught them how to talk to the media: "Think about their question before you speak." She demonstrated how to shake a president's hand. "Look him in the eye and shake firmly."
Just after 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 21, two nervous Cub Scouts approached Bush's front drive. As he opened the door, the former commander in chief could have been any Preston Hollow retiree donating cans that Saturday morning: 62, gray hair, loose slacks and a plastic bag filled with canned carrots. Except Bush wore a blue windbreaker with the presidential seal over the left breast, and Burke noticed the Secret Service agents eye the Scouts as they wrapped their arms around Bush and posed for pictures.
* * *
The Bushes departed Washington less than 90 minutes after Obama's inauguration. They boarded a helicopter and flew to Andrews Air Force Base, where 4,000 invited guests and military families waited in an airport hangar. The crowd waved American flags as Bush stepped to the lectern and said, "We served with conviction." Then he disappeared onto a charter plane, where about 75 friends and family members greeted him with a standing ovation.
As the plane flew toward Texas, the entire party jammed into the conference room to watch a video tribute. Beneath the clouds, television stations replayed Obama's inaugural address, a somber assessment of a country in "the midst of crisis." At cruising altitude, Bush's guests watched for 20 minutes as leaders including Bill Clinton, Barbara Bush and Tony Blair retold their fondest memories of Bush's presidency. White House staff members testified to his kindness; longtime friends recalled his courage and fortitude.
"There were a lot of people that got teary-eyed," said Israel Hernandez, a close friend of the Bushes. "It was emotionally overwhelming."
Bush landed in Midland, Tex., his home town, for a rally attended by 20,000 supporters and then spoke to 4,000 more in Waco. He told them that, when he looks in the mirror, he will "be proud of what I see." Then a helicopter took Bush to his ranch in Crawford, where he arrived just after dark.
"Since the moment he got back home, you can see that he is a much more relaxed, lighthearted person," said Jim Francis, one of Bush's closest friends. "He's in a place where people appreciate and understand him, and a lot of the stresses of being president are not things he's going to miss. The relief is visible to anyone who knows him. This is where he's comfortable."
The Bushes coveted a house in Preston Hollow because they remembered their previous stint in the neighborhood as idyllic, friends said. From 1988 to 1995, the couple lived on a block lined with oak trees and single-story houses, nice but unpretentious. Their twin daughters attended a private school nearby. Bush jogged outside in the morning, frequented the local pizza joint and hosted the neighborhood's annual Halloween party. At night, as the owner of the Texas Rangers, he attended baseball games with friends and contemplated an underdog run for governor. Why not? He had a famous name, popularity and his own booming career.
"Everybody -- everybody -- just loved him," said Mark Langdale, a former next-door neighbor who now oversees planning for Bush's presidential center.
Late in 2008, Laura found the couple's new house less than a mile north of their old block, in what Langdale described as a "stepped up" part of Preston Hollow. Laura loved the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that lined the hallways, the fireplace and the large windows with views of a football-field-shaped back yard. Bush never visited the property; on Laura's advice, he agreed they should buy it.
The Bushes have settled into a new routine at home, even as they write their own books and travel to give occasional speeches. Laura shops for furniture with Ken Blasingame, her friend and decorator, and plans to practice yoga. The former president tests new mountain biking trials and monitors his heart rate while he rides. Laura returned to Washington last month to speak at the funeral of a former White House employee but left hours later. Her husband stays in touch with former aides by e-mailing on his BlackBerry, a new toy.
The couple subscribe to the Dallas Morning News, which has written about their visit to a local elementary school and the standing ovation they received after finishing dinner with friends at Fernando's Mexican Cuisine. Even on days when the paper's front page is blanketed with difficult reminders of Bush's terms -- deaths in Iraq, Osama bin Laden, the recession -- the former president has told friends that he prefers the newspaper to his old morning reading: a stack of national security threats.
Bush rarely talks about his successor and he vows to support him. At his luncheon speech in Calgary, the former president said: "I'm not going to spend my time criticizing [Obama]. There are plenty of critics in the arena. He deserves my silence."
But Laura has one curiosity about the Obamas that she cannot shake, friends said. Before leaving the White House, she spent her own money to have two of her favorite chairs reproduced as a gift for the new first family. The original chairs, on loan from her friend Anne Johnson, are armless and chic, and Laura thought Michelle Obama would love them.
"Laura keeps asking about those chairs," Johnson said. "She's saying to me, 'Do you think they're using them? Do they like them? Oh, how could they not love those chairs?' "
* * *
Bush has said that he expects to live at least 20 more years, and that he does not want to spend all his time dwelling on an eight-year presidency. He has placed the hopes for his future in plans for a 207,000-square-foot presidential center, which will feature a library for his archives, a museum and a policy institute.
The center is scheduled to open in 2013, but the policy institute will offer preliminary programs starting this fall. Bush plans to host scholars and world leaders who will ruminate about freedom, the economy and keeping the country safe. He and Laura will participate in their discussions regularly, aides said.
But first, Bush will focus on writing a book that explains his presidency in detail. He thinks his two terms will ultimately be judged on a series of major decisions: going to war with Iraq, selecting Cheney as a running mate and directing the response to Hurricane Katrina. The museum will offer an interactive tour of those key moments, so visitors can experience the decisions as Bush made them. His book, scheduled for release in 2010 by Crown, will focus on about a dozen major choices and the reasoning behind them, aides said.
Bush has already written more than 25,000 words, and a research assistant has been dispatched to the warehouse in Lewisville, Tex., that is temporarily storing his archives. In explaining the book to friends, Bush has reinforced that it is at least partly intended for future historians who will examine his presidency with fresh eyes. Bush told former White House press secretary Dana Perino that he had found comfort reading several biographies of George Washington. If the first president still required analysis, Bush joked, then what could the 43rd president have to worry about?
"There's a comfort that comes with knowing you probably won't be alive to see the real verdict on your presidency," said Kirbyjon Caldwell, Bush's friend and the pastor at Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. "There's only so much he can control."
Bush is less concerned about the opinions of his current critics than those of future generations, Caldwell said. Last month, Bush visited an American government class at Southern Methodist University to lecture to a group of 19- and 20-year-olds, people who were not old enough to have voted for or against him. His appearance was planned one week in advance but kept secret until the moment he walked into a classroom flanked by the university president, vice president, three personal aides and the Secret Service. The 30 students were instructed to turn off their cellphones and put away their cameras until the end of class.
Bush spoke for the first 10 minutes about his presidential center and his new life in Dallas. The students, most of whom had described themselves as conservative on a class questionnaire at the beginning of the semester, treated Bush with respect, even reverence. He asked for questions. One student raised a hand.
How did you make your decisions in office?
The classroom windows were covered with white paper to prevent outsiders from peering in. Secret Service agents were standing guard. The students were too star-struck to take notes. Bush stood at the center of the classroom, at home in the 33 percent, and offered an early summation of his presidency.
You make your decisions based on principles, he said. And you never worry about popularity or polls.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.