Back in Texas, A More Simple Life for Bush
In Insular World, the Negative Is Left Behind
Saturday, April 11, 2009; Page A01
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.