CRAWFORD, Texas – The sun is setting on this rural corner of President Bush’s empire.
This week, the president is spending what are expected to be his final days as president at his family ranch, a craggy 1,583-acre estate here in the Texas heartland that is almost as prominent a symbol of his presidency as the White House itself.
It was here, set against a desiccated landscape and wide-open skies reminiscent of a frontier novel, where the CIA warned Bush of al-Qaida’s intentions in a memo titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.” Here the president made the decision to go to war against Iraq and learned about Hurricane Katrina drowning New Orleans. Here he made nice with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, kissed Saudi leader Abdullah, and married off his daughter Jenna. Here he refused to meet with Cindy Sheehan, who demanded to speak with him about the death of her son in Iraq.
The place dubbed Bush’s “Western White House” has seen 18 visits by foreign leaders, scores of news conferences and long bike rides in the 100-degree heat, as well as the commander in chief’s seemingly ceaseless quest to clear brush. With the approaching hand-over of power to President-elect Barack Obama on Jan. 20, such moments are coming to a quiet end.
Public attention has now shifted to Hawaii and Obama’s vacation activities, while little has been heard from Bush since he arrived in Texas aboard Air Force One. He has made no public appearances, and aides have provided few details about his schedule, other than to say that he is talking to advisers and foreign leaders about the violence in the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Even Texans would have been hard-pressed to find Crawford, a town of 751, on a map when Bush purchased the one-time hog farm in August 1999. But the property carried a particular appeal. For the just-announced presidential candidate, educated at Yale and scion of a well-connected East Coast family, Prairie Chapel Ranch was a symbol of rugged masculinity and attachment to down-home America.
“He thought he was going to be stealing a page from Ronald Reagan’s ranch appeal,” said Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University. “The weird part of it is, it was going to work for a while.”
Bush played his part by mocking journalists who griped about the Spartan amenities and punishing summer heat of Central Texas.
“I know a lot of you wish you were in the East Coast, lounging on the beaches, sucking in the salt air,” he told reporters in 2001. “But when you’re from Texas – and love Texas – this is where you come home. It’ll be the house where I live in for the rest of my life. I like my own home, and I don’t mind the heat.”
Whether or not the property was bought for political reasons, there is little doubt that Bush enjoyed visiting. He is on his 77th trip to the ranch; he has spent just short of 500 days of his 2,922 days in office there.
David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University, said the ranch offered Bush a place of stability in changing times, similar to Calvin Coolidge returning to his family homestead in Plymouth Notch, Vt., in the tumultuous 1920s.
“These attachments to place serve as an anchor against the current of modernity,” Greenberg said. “The new adopted home has become sort of proof of stability and constant values.”
Brinkley said that Bush’s love of Texas may be real, grounded in his childhood days in Midland and Houston, but the ranch itself was pure theater.
“Any time you’re president, you love to get away,” he said. “I think it’s really his touchstone place. But it got created out of the crucible of a need for image-making. … Don’t have him as the Yalie cheerleader or the silver-spoon kid from a wealthy family. The image working around him became Crawford. Even the name is a John Wayne or Gary Cooper movie: Crawford with the hay bales. It became this manipulative backdrop.”
Asked what the place has meant to Bush, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Tuesday: “The ranch has been a place where the president and Mrs. Bush have been able to relax, have friends over and get away from the spotlight of the White House some. … It has been a place where he could take some time off.”
But Bush will not spend the rest of his life there, contrary to the plans he laid out in 2001. He and his wife, Laura, will move to Dallas after he leaves office. At an off-the-record fundraiser in Houston in July, he said Laura had made the decision. “I like Crawford,” he said. “Unfortunately, after eight years of asking her to sacrifice, I’m now no longer the decision-maker. She’ll be deciding.”
Vincent Cannato, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, thought Bush was likely to hold on to the property anyway, as Reagan did with his California ranch after leaving the White House.
“If he sells the place in 2010, and he and Laura live it up on the social circuit in Dallas, OK. Then he’s a big faker,” Cannato said. “But I can’t see how. He likes being out there.”
Greenberg predicted that Bush’s connection to the Crawford mythos would endure.
“What’s amazing to me about Bush … is that despite his unpopularity the last three years in particular, and despite his coming under criticism for every aspect of his presidency, the Crawford mythology remains pretty strong,” he said.
“The ‘compassionate conservative,’ the ‘uniter, not the divider,’ all that has been swept away,” Greenberg said. “The Texas cowboy has survived.”