The president and Laura Bush decided one night this month that it was time for a night out in Washington. Shortly after 7 p.m. on Jan. 15, they walked through the doors of the Cactus Cantina on Wisconsin Avenue NW and into a dining room filled with about 250 unsuspecting locals. Their table was near the back, away from the windows. She got the fajitas. He got the cheese enchilada.
Such adventures have been rare since the Bushes moved into the White House two years ago. Asked for examples of similar forays, White House staff members and keen-eyed presidential observers often pause, in a head-scratching sort of way, before proceeding.
"Well, they actually haven't done much of that," said Noelia Rodriguez, the first lady's spokeswoman. "They pretty much every night have dinner together when they're at the White House. They spend a lot of time reading. And he might watch some sort of sporting event, especially during baseball season."
Everyone concurs that the president hasn't exactly set the Washington area ablaze with public appearances. They're quick with explanations: a steady workload of international crises, heightened security concerns following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a presidential personality that's more comfortable at Camp David or a Texas ranch. Friends of Bush say he knows what he likes -- open spaces, intimate gatherings with family, Tex-Mex food -- and is content to stick with those things instead of exploring a city that he has made plain doesn't feel like home to him.
All of this seems right to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who often finds herself in disagreement with Bush's policies. If he presented himself as a man-of-the-town with scores of photo ops and drop-ins, she said, it would look hokey. "I think the president is right not to spend a lot of time in a largely Democratic city where he'll be criticized for using it as kind of a prop," she said. "I think he's doing it right. He comes out when it's relevant."
When the Bushes went to their first stage performance as area residents in 2001, they did so for family reasons -- to see the president's sister-in-law in a Neil Simon play at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. The only sporting event they've attended here has been T-ball on the South Lawn. They have paid visits to several private residences for social gatherings, including those of columnist George Will and of Katharine Graham, the former chairman of The Washington Post Co., who died in July 2001.
Other off-the-clock outings generally have been limited to a few restaurants that Bush's father took them to -- the Peking Gourmet Inn in Falls Church -- or that import the familiar flavors of Texas. It's a short list that includes Jeffrey's at the Watergate, an Austin-based business owned by a childhood friend of the first lady's, the El Paso Cafe in Arlington and now the Cactus Cantina.
"I think the last time they went out together," Rodriguez said, trying to remember their last nonofficial appearance at a Washington area establishment before Jan. 15, "was when they went out to Arlington."
That was on Sept. 24, 2001.
He got the cheese enchilada.
The president gave ample notice to Washingtonians during the 2000 campaign that he had no intention of getting too comfortable in their city. He told voters he was a Washington outsider, that his area code was 512 and that his Zip code was 78701. "That's Austin," he explained during a television interview. "It's not Washington, D.C."
It is yet another way he differs from a predecessor who logged a series of unofficial and often unpredictable cameos around town and, to some, longed to appear at home in Washington. Bill Clinton's excursions into D.C. street life included jogs downtown, a famous pit stop at a McDonald's, a stroll along Georgia Avenue, browsing in bookstores and occasional dinners out. The impromptus reportedly gave the Secret Service fits, but a bit of president-resident interaction was expected; forays into Washington had been an established part of the presidential routine long before Clinton.
President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, helped put several local restaurants on the map, including Galileo and the Peking Gourmet Inn, where the owner said the elder Bush has dined 50 or so times, a regular among regulars.
President Richard M. Nixon was often spotted ambling a couple of blocks from the White House on his way to his favorite haunt, Trader Vic's at the Capitol Hilton. President Lyndon B. Johnson was no stranger to the streets of Georgetown, where he often dropped in on friends at home.
But President Bush's approach to Washington has been more akin to that of President Ronald Reagan, say observers. For the most part, Reagan left the public appearances in Washington to his wife, Nancy, (lunch at the Jockey Club, shopping trips, etc.) while he stayed in the White House and let it be known he'd rather be back at his ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif. In this administration, it's Laura Bush who handles much of the White House's community relations, reading at local libraries and appearing at schools. She is regularly spotted by locals (Jaleo, Lauriol Plaza, Old Ebbitt Grill, Cafe Deluxe, Pottery Barn, etc.), while Crawford, Tex., Zip code 76638, provides the wooded backdrop for many of her husband's impromptu photo ops.
"He's very careful not to leave any signs that he's been taken in by Washington, but he's not as hostile about it as Reagan was," said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "He hasn't gone out of his way to separate himself from the city, but being seen as part of the community here just doesn't seem to be a concern of his. That said, this White House has had reasonable cooperation with the mayor and District government. There isn't a huge amount of crackling tension there."
Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and his staff remain "cautiously optimistic" about the city's official relationship with the Bush administration, says Tony Bullock, the mayor's spokesman. One of the first couple's few appearances at a public venue -- at Morton's of Chicago on Connecticut Avenue NW on Oct. 2, 2001 -- was a quasi-business dinner with Williams and his wife, Diane Simmons Williams, to discuss the city's post-Sept. 11 concerns and to set an example encouraging citizens to patronize businesses. The president also visited the city's command center last fall to champion the Department of Homeland Security bill and said he felt safe in the city.
Two years ago, city leaders hoped that Bush would reopen Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to vehicular traffic. The president seemed amenable. But the terrorist attacks dashed those hopes, ratcheting up the already tight restraints on presidential accessibility and sharply limiting those allowed to tour the White House.
With the exception of Bush's stated opposition to voting rights for the District, Norton said she believes the president has been "quite fair" and accessible to local officials. She praised him for funding the overtime of police, fire and rescue officers during demonstrations against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. She and city officials have urged the White House to open up more -- such as resuming more public tours and reopening roads such as E Street NW to traffic -- and she said the result has been "communication and responsiveness" if not change.
That said, there is unmistakably a much tighter watch on the White House and its surroundings since the terrorist attacks. Before, Bush occasionally walked across Lafayette Square on Sunday mornings to attend church at St. John's Episcopal Church.
Not anymore. Now the block-long journey requires a motorcade.
"I've talked to him about it, and he says you just can't avoid it," said Terry Johnson, Bush's roommate at Yale and a Northern Virginia resident who socializes with the president about once a month at the White House or Camp David. "They have friends in for small gatherings rather than going outside, because security is so horrendous."
Carol Joynt, owner of Nathans in Georgetown, said she believes presidents and their staffs set the tone for public life in the city, whether they intend to or not. If a president goes out to dinner regularly, she says, there's a jump in restaurant traffic in general. If the president stays home and nests, she said, a significant number of Washingtonians follow suit.
"Even if he went out to the MCI Center once in a while, something to give the impression that he sometimes actually leaves the White House, it would be helpful," said Joynt, who has owned Nathans since 1997. "But then it's not his responsibility to live according to the needs of the local business community."
Joynt offered a hypothesis that she thinks explains why Bush sightings in Washington are so infrequent. It hinges on what the Bushes don't do.
"It all comes down to behaving badly," she said. "No one behaves badly anymore. People used to go out and drink, they used to go to lunch. People don't even go to lunch anymore, and if they do, they split a salad and order iced tea."
The first couple, she said, has fallen in line with the prevailing social trends.
"The Bushes are into exercise."
The president's preferred exercise is running, but running at the White House is pretty much limited to a small track on the South Lawn and an elliptical trainer. To enjoy the outdoors that Bush often pledges allegiance to, he usually leaves town.
Often that means going to Fort McNair to run or to Andrews Air Force Base for a round of golf. More often, it means going to Crawford or to Camp David.
Since he was inaugurated two years ago, Bush has spent more than 140 days in Crawford and has averaged every other weekend at Camp David, according to a presidential log kept by CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller. Knoller, who has tracked presidential schedules since the Ford administration, said Bush's ranch time is on pace to eclipse that of Reagan, who spent more than 11 months of his eight years in office at his home away from home on the West Coast.
While Bush wasn't that visible around Washington for the first two years of his presidency, some locals hope to see more of him. Officials at the advertising company for the Austin Grill contacted Bush when he was elected, inviting him for dinner. They didn't hear back, but they're still hopeful.
As one of the few who's had the honor of the first couple's presence, Mario Arbaiza, owner of the El Paso Cafe, is ready for more. The president, he said, assured the restaurant staff that his visit during that first year wouldn't be his last. He expects him back soon. The cheese enchiladas are waiting.
"He said he'd come back," Arbaiza said, "but that was the last we've seen of him."