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Burnishing an Image at the USA Corral

Times Staff Writer

President Bush calls his Prairie Chapel Ranch “a slice of heaven,” a special place where he can ride his mountain bike, fish his man-made pond and clear brush to his heart’s content.

But is it really a ranch?

Here’s a clue: The Secret Service agents now outnumber the cows.

Bush’s summer vacation at the 1,583-acre spread, which ends Friday after close to five weeks, allows him not only to relax, but to remind the nation that he’s a Cowboy President. It’s a tradition started by Teddy Roosevelt, and followed by Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, that casts the chief executive as a plain-talking, outdoors-loving leader.

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The president’s supporters say that’s the real Bush, and they say he would be spending time at the property he bought in 1999 even if he had not run for president a year later. Still, they acknowledge that Bush’s image benefits from his time in Crawford.

But with a handful of cattle now on the property, some Texans suggest that calling the place a ranch could be considered a stretch.

“There are some guys that are all hat and no cattle. The president’s not that way; he’s hat and five cattle,” joked Austin lawyer and former U.S. Rep. Kent R. Hance, who as a Democrat beat Bush in a 1978 congressional race by portraying him as an Ivy League interloper.

The White House declined to let a reporter look at the grounds or interview ranch hands while the president and First Lady Laura Bush finished their vacation.

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Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino confirmed that the bovine population had fallen sharply since former ranch foreman Kenneth Engelbrecht got rid of his cattle and vacated the property a few months ago. Engelbrecht, a member of the family that sold the ranch to Bush in 1999, had been leasing back pasture and tending a herd that numbered about 200.

Perino initially said the president still kept “a few” cattle on the ranch. Pressed for a more precise head count, she said “four or five.” (They are believed to include Ophelia and Eltonia, two longhorns given to Bush by his gubernatorial staff in 1999, and perhaps some of their progeny.)

One neighbor said he had heard that the Bushes shut down Engelbrecht’s grazing operation because they wanted “to give the land a rest.” Mrs. Bush has been planting prairie grasses and wildflowers in the sun-baked ranch soil. Bill Ferguson, the broker who handled the original sale, said he thought the Bushes wanted to devote the land to wildlife and native vegetation.

Engelbrecht isn’t saying.

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“My deal with them was to stay clear of everything,” he said. “We left on good terms, still friends with the president. So far, I haven’t found that anything’s helped me by putting it in the paper. They’re pretty ticklish about that.”

The departure of Engelbrecht and his herd raises several questions, among them: Do four or five cows, plus two visiting Scottish terriers, constitute a true ranch?

“Well, I guess it’s just up to the people,” said 74-year-old Ray Neuman, who runs 55 Hereford cattle on the property next to Bush’s. “We have trouble with just calling anything a ranch around here. But it’s getting more common all the time.”

Will the president’s credibility suffer if he is no longer perceived as a cowboy?

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“He’s earned his spurs,” said Hance, who accused Bush of being an outsider in the 1978 race but is now a Republican and a Bush supporter who believes that the president’s professed affinity for country living is genuine. “He is a real Texan.”

And just what is a ranch, anyway?

“Not what it used to be,” said Sam Middleton, proprietor of Chas. S. Middleton and Son of Lubbock, one of the biggest ranch brokerages in Texas. Middleton, 57, has arranged hundreds of ranch sales over the years, including the 135,000-acre Frying Pan Ranch straddling the Texas-New Mexico border.

Twenty years ago, Middleton said, anything with fewer than 300 cattle would not be considered a working ranch. But times have changed.

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“Now folks are buying the ranches for other purposes, for recreation and enjoyment of land ownership, and just as places to park money,” he said.

With five head of cattle, does the Bush property make the cut?

“Yeah, it’s fair to call that a ranch,” Middleton allowed.

Dictionaries generally define a ranch as a large farm on which cattle, sheep or horses are raised. Some include secondary definitions that encompass other fauna and flora, as well as the houses of the people who raise them.

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In central Texas, people stretch the term pretty far.

“If they’ve got 10 acres and a horse, they think they’ve got a ranch,” said real estate agent Debby Holmes, whose listings include the Abba Yakni Ranch, half a mile from the Bush property. (“Be neighbors to the president of the United States of America!” suggests her flier, which offers the four-bedroom ranch house, adjoining guest house and 30 acres of wooded land for $259,000.)

“Technically, if it’s not a cattle operation, or goats or sheep or some animal, I wouldn’t consider it a ranch,” said Gene Ellis, who raises Black Angus cattle on her 376-acre Genecov Ranch near Clifton. “But a lot of people call them ranches, and nobody thinks twice about it. I mean, we’re not picky. Especially if it’s a large piece.”

The Bushes bought Prairie Chapel Ranch from the Engelbrecht family for a reported $1.3 million in 1999, shortly after earning a $14-million profit from the sale of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise and a year before George Bush’s first run for president.

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He and Mrs. Bush immediately began transforming it into their Texas home, building a 4,000-square-foot, limestone-walled, passive-solar living quarters; adding an 11-acre pond stocked with bass and other fish; and planting native grasses, flowers, and a tree farm that might go commercial after Bush leaves Washington.

Bush prefers bicycles to horses and never claimed to be a cattleman. He has described himself as a “windshield rancher” who likes to escort such visitors as Russian President Vladimir Putin around his property in a pickup. He once told a visiting journalist he had become an avid amateur arborist.

“I am,” he said. “Tree man.”

The first lady has made sport of the president’s animal husbandry deficit.

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“I’m proud of George,” she told the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner in April. “He’s learned a lot about ranching since that first year when he tried to milk the horse.

“What’s worse, it was a male horse.”

Bush’s ranch acquisition made him the latest incarnation of the cowboy-in-chief, an iconic political figure invented by Theodore Roosevelt in the late 19th century.

Roosevelt, before he founded the Rough Riders or ran for president, spent two years running a cattle operation in the Badlands of North Dakota. He failed as a commercial rancher but accomplished a remarkable personal transformation in the process.

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“Roosevelt was asthmatic. He had Coke-bottle glasses. He had a funny way that he talked,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, director of Tulane University’s Theodore Roosevelt Center.

“But he learned the way that men talk in the West and refashioned himself from an aristocratic dandy into a cowboy.”

The tradition was handed down to Lyndon Johnson, who bought a south Texas ranch from his Aunt Frank and Uncle Clarence and launched a 2,700-acre commercial Hereford breeding operation that continues to this day.

“It was a full-fledged ranch, yes sir,” said Edward Meier, who worked for Johnson as a herdsman in the 1960s and later became foreman of the LBJ Ranch for the National Park Service. “He was really involved. He wanted the irrigation pumps running. He wanted the tractors running. He wanted lots of action going.”

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The legacy was carried on by Ronald Reagan, who spent a fair amount of his presidency at his 688-acre Rancho del Cielo in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. Reagan did not raise cattle, but he rode horses, cleared brush and chopped wood for the fireplace that provided the adobe ranch house’s only heat.

Brinkley said Bush had successfully adopted the populist cowboy persona, which he described as the “ultimate American male archetype of our time” and a reassuring symbol to a society that likes to divide history’s figures into good guys and bad guys.

“As much as people may complain that Bush is in Crawford, a lot of Americans like seeing him in blue jeans with a big belt buckle, walking down a dirt road or clearing brush,” Brinkley said. “It’s become a stage set for him.”

For Bush, who was born in New Haven, Conn., and schooled at Yale and Harvard, the ranch has helped provide a political antidote to the Northeastern blue-blood heritage that dogged his father, George H.W. Bush, as president.

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“It has been a big benefit for him, because one of the things he had to try to neutralize was the elitist image that hurt his father,” said University of Texas government professor Bruce Buchanan, who specializes in presidential politics. “It was a great way to do that, made all the more effective because he really likes it up there. I think he and his wife will go back and live there when it’s no longer to their advantage to do so.”

Bush’s associates and observers say time on the ranch also appears to pay off psychologically for the president -- particularly the hours he spends whacking down the thick cedar underbrush with his chain saw, sometimes in 100-degree heat.

Stephen J. Wayne, a Georgetown University presidential scholar and author of “The Road to the White House,” said chopping brush in Crawford could be a metaphor for what Bush wished he could accomplish in Washington.

“The nice thing about brush is that when you clear it, it’s all gone. It doesn’t come back right away,” Wayne said. “Psychologically, you can do something and get it done. It’s not nearly as frustrating as day-to-day politics.”

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Jimmy Ridings, who operates one of the bigger ranches near Bush’s, said he knows that satisfaction well. Ridings, 55, founded a Dallas-area ceiling fan and lighting business that has grown into a public company with $125 million in annual sales. But he derives more pleasure from the four days a week he spends running his 7,000-acre Colonial Oaks Ranch near Meridian, where he raises about 1,000 Limousin beef cattle.

“You go out there and you clean something up, then you look back and see how it improves,” Ridings said. “It’s a whole lot better than having a company and having to wait 10 years for it to get there. This is instant.”

Rheadene Weber, who lives with her rancher husband, Dale, down the road from the Bushes, is less empathetic. She said she was sick and tired of the antiwar protests and counter-protests choking traffic on the country road leading to their cattle pasture.

“I don’t know whether the Bush ranch is a ranch or what it is,” Weber fumed. “Right now, I think it’s all a game. A political game. That’s what I think.”

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