"Most Americans don't sit in Martha's Vineyard, swilling white wine."
-- George W. Bush
This president loves to clear brush. He is on vacation, but accomplishing things: decimating cedar with a chain saw, hauling the wood into burn piles and ensuring sunlight and water for his native oaks. He jogs prairies, spits, hunts the odd dove and hosts the occasional world leader or economic forum. But "clearing brush" is, hands-down, George W.'s most cherished form of recreation, at least as measured by how often you hear about it.
"The president spent the morning clearing brush," goes the daily refrain whenever Bush repairs to his 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel ranch in central Texas. He speaks often of his exploits -- though not, alas, for this article -- and he does so in tones of joy and with terms of satisfaction. "We're making great progress in one of the bottom areas [of a grove] that was heretofore relatively inaccessible," Bush told the traveling press earlier this year.
"We're lifting weights!" he told an Associated Press reporter last week, hoisting logs on both shoulders. "Oh, baby!" he said, unloading the logs.
He is the nation's First Clearer of Brush. He is forging a fresh path. A rugged bearing is reinforced and the president always looks well-satisfied in the pictures.
Message: I clear.
"Cutting brush is a metaphor for what you would like to do in the presidency, but can't," says Steven J. Wayne, a professor of history at Georgetown. That is, brush presents a clear-cut challenge that can be swiftly eliminated. If removing Saddam Hussein was as straightforward as clearing brush, Wayne says, then there would be a simple solution to the Saddam problem. "Problems that reach the president, by definition, are not simple, nor are most presidential actions and decisions cost-free," he says. Clearing brush is both.
A primer for readers on the Vineyard: "Brush" is a generic term for all manner of flora and detritus that accumulates in a woodland, field, mountainside, prairie, canyon, wherever. Brush is anything that obstructs a desired path. For Bush, it is nature's analogue to Tom Daschle.
To remove brush requires extended, monotonous exertion, often in extreme heat and without the benefit of tools more sophisticated than a chain saw. Clearing brush would seem like the ultimate busywork or drudgery, especially for someone with more important things to do. Indeed, few taxpayers would begrudge the president an underling to clear his brush, just as there is someone who is paid to cook his meals and fold his laundry. Bush often "invites" aides along to help him clear brush, but it is not an activity he would give up.
Earlier this month, in an effort to win more federal money for workers at Ground Zero, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) offered to travel to Crawford, put on a pair of work gloves and help the president clear brush if it meant she could lobby him personally. No invite has been forthcoming as of yet.
Bush is not the first president to clear brush. The record is sketchy on which ones did, but presidential scholars have their guesses. Tim Blessing, of Alvernia College in Reading, Pa., names Washington, Adams and Jefferson as brush-clearers, as well as Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.
He also lists Lyndon Johnson, who spent long stretches at his Texas ranch, but some LBJ-philes are dubious: His ranch was in the Texas Hill Country, near Austin, and "there's not a lot of brush up there, like there is in Crawford," says historian Hal K. Rothman, author of a book on Johnson's ranch, "LBJ's Texas White House: 'Our Heart's Home.' " Johnson biographer Robert Caro says he is not aware that LBJ ever cleared brush, but adds that "he did have an obsessive desire for physical improvement on the ranch."
Reagan's penchant for clearing brush was well known and exhaustively -- or at least redundantly -- reported. He avidly cleared his 688-acre ranch at Rancho del Cielo, Calif., while his press secretary Marlin Fitzwater dutifully proclaimed as much. "Is a new load being hauled up there every day for him to clear?" an exasperated reporter once asked Fitzwater, who acknowledges that clearing brush holds little intrinsic news value. Even in August.
Still, the appeal of clearing brush is self-evident to anyone who has done it, says Fitzwater, adding that he cleared quite a bit when he was growing up on a farm in Kansas. It yields quick and measurable results in a way that presidential endeavors rarely do.
"If you're the president, you have control over worldwide movements," Fitzwater says. "But you often feel out of control of the little things." For instance, a president does not spend his own money, drive his own car or shop for his own clothes. "You lose control over certain activities that give you satisfaction. Going out and clearing brush gives you a little chance to be in control."
And a killer photo-op, besides. Brush-clearing is can-do, hands-on, results-oriented, all the things a chief executive strives to be.
Images of GWB clearing brush help him assert his Real American bona fides -- and, implicitly, help distance him from the Andover/Yale/Harvard of his youth. Clearing brush offers Bush an enduring public assertion of where he is not: on Poppy's cigarette boat in Kennebunkport, or Bill Clinton's putting green in Martha's Vineyard. Clearing brush portrays Bush as his own man, someone who doesn't need a Dick Morris poll to tell him how to spend his vacation.
But to indulge in too much analysis mocks the cut-and-dried appeal of clearing brush. "You can take out your aggressions on the hapless brush with minimal resistance," says Steven Wayne. "And when you finish, you can admire your work."