Bush Ditches His Ranch for Ritzier Digs in Dallas

So it's official: George W. Bush is not a cowboy. We pretty much suspected he wasn't when we learned that, for all his bow-legged strutting, the man's afraid of horses. But last week, Bush let the other Lucchese boot drop: He and Laura bought a $2 million, fancy-pants house in Dallas's toniest neighborhood and will soon be high-tailin' it out of that eight-year-old stage set of a "ranch" in Crawford. Any uncleared brush can go clear itself.

Oh, the couple will undoubtedly drop by the old chuckwagon, do some weekends maybe (and it could well become the safe-house George retreats to when, and if, the long pent-up Furies finally claim his mind). But the move to Dallas is a 180 from what Laura told USA Today during a ranch tour in April, 2001, that she and George "want to grow old here."

Instead, the Bushes' old growth will take place primarily at a refurbished 1959 home in the upscale neighborhood of Preston Hollows, just blocks from other powerfuls, like Ross Perot, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban, and Texas Rangers' owner Tom Hicks, who bought the business from previous owner George, making him even wealthier. A Dallas realtor described the exclusive area (literally: until 2000, a neighborhood covenant deemed it for whites only, making an exception for servants) as one where many "older homes are being torn down and big new ones, mega-mansions, are being put up in their place."

Bush's Western White House was a bit like that too: a 1,583-acre McRanch, a former pig farm actually, bought in 1999 to de-Kennebunkport George during his initial run for the presidency. The brand new, one-story ranch house--with geothermal heating and other eco features that were good enough for him and his but not the country--was supposed to be finished by Election Day 2000. It's not clear whether it was plumbing or stolen-election problems that caused the delay, but the home wasn't ready until after the Inaugural.

Bush imagineers Karl Rove and Karen Hughes didn't exactly broadcast the spanking newness of the place, because the idea was to make it seem more like a homestead, handed down not by the Bush family (as Yale and Skull'n'Bones were), but as something distinctly W's, his true home, as if the switchgrass itself had curled its tendrils up through New England and around George's belt loops to pull him back to the east Texas soil where he rightly belonged.

A ranch, a place where bulls theoretically roam, seems to dial up the manliness of any commander-in-chief: Reagan had a ranch, so did fellow Texan Lyndon Johnson, in contrast to Jimmy Carter who, as the GOP never tires of noting, had a "peanut farm." With a ranch, Bush could pre-empt any mortifying Newsweek covers, like the "Fighting the Wimp Factor" one his father suffered in 1987.

If he couldn't ride a horse, and wouldn't even pose on one, 43 could clear some mean brush. As former Texas agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower, who dubbed the Crawford digs a "ranchette," said in 2004, "Bush is always inviting the media out to take pictures of him clearing brush. In my experience real ranchers spend virtually no time clearing brush. They're usually tending cattle....the cattle you see as part of the photo op aren't even his. They're somebody else's that he rents the land to."

But as we all know, it made a smashing backdrop, and most media are backdrop fools, much as they were for Bush's Mission Accomplished aircraft carrier backdrop. Long after Bush had come to be seen around the world as all hat and no cattle in every embarrassing way, his rough-hewn cowboy image lived on in the media. To this day Europeans knock his "cowboy diplomacy," perhaps not realizing how cool that sounds to the chickenhawks who, like Dick Cheney, scratch in the dirt of American exceptionalism.

If portraying George as a cherished Western archetype made the media's story-telling job easier, it also made any reporting that pierced the hype just seem off, if not also wrong and school-marmish. Geomythologies can work anywhere. The awful reality of Sarah Palin was, and still is, buffered by the very snow of kute'n'kooky Alaska. Which is one reason the media slathered over Sarah: A gal who can skin and dress a moose is the true heir of Bush's faux frontier spirit.

As for creating a post-presidency image, Rove, Hughes, and gang are hard at work on the "Bush legacy project," setting up mealy "exit interviews" on network TV and issuing talking points for officials to mouth when they discuss Bush in public. Most laughably, they claim he has upheld "the honor and the dignity of his office," code among the morally shortsighted for not having sex in the Oval Office--as if there is no dishonor in lying a country into war, nor any indignity in torturing helpless captives.

Some of those exit interviews, however, do reveal the new, probably unintentional Bush persona that is shaping up: not cowboy but cowed boy. He's the pleasantly henpecked, suburban house-husband, bumpin' around the kitchen, getting underfoot, submitting to Laura's will, as she drags him by the spurs from the ranch back to civilization.

"She's got this great, idyllic vision of me kind of with a little apron on that says 'Barney's Dad' on it, flipping burgers," Bush told NBC news. At times he looks ashen, as if she was holding him together, almost as if she realizes that he's a fragile husk. The buzz is that she could sell her memoir for millions, but he might not even be able to "replenish the old coffers" with speaking fees, once upon a time his idea of a gold-plated presidential 401k.

The move from the ranch, which Laura never much liked anyway, and George's creeping dependency on her, have been underway at least since July. That's when, at a private Houston fundraiser, a cellphone camera caught the reformed alcoholic president explained the economic crash by saying, "Wall Street got drunk...and now it's got a hangover." Bush had to shout over the rising laughter as went on to say that the "housing issue"--a reference to the toxic mortgage securities that were destroying the global financial system--wasn't a problem in Houston, whose loyal Republican wealthy were toasting him at the fundraiser, "and evidently not in Dallas, 'cause Laura's over there trying to buy a house today." Horselaughs rip through the room as someone yells out, "What about Crawford?"

"I like Crawford. Unfortunately, after eight years of asking her to sacrifice, I am no longer the decision maker," he said, adding, "I did tell her, 'We've been on government pay now for 14 years, so go slow.'"

On the big wide screen of stereotypes, if a ranch masculates, house-husbandry emasculates. But such weakness could provide Bush with just the patina of innocence, even infantilization, that someone who refuses to ever accept responsiblity needs. It's like his recent admission that he was "unprepared for war"--who can blame him for failures he could not foresee? Those of us who have reviled his administration and longed for the day when justice would take its eye for an eye are supposed to stay our hand now, like Mel Gibson does at the end of "Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome." After Mel finally knocks the orc-metal helmet off the evil MasterBlaster, he's shocked to find it hid an innocent, baby-faced mongoloid.

Do you want to take revenge on Barney's Dad?

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