Bush Would Rather Be Relaxing in Texas
This, for George Walker Bush, is the un-Crawford.
His nearly 1,600-acre ranch in Texas is secluded, the house he built situated far from the public road.
But here in Kennebunkport, the rambling wood and stone family home where he spent childhood summers stands on Walker’s Point, a low promontory that juts into the Gulf of Maine. For years, tourists have been able to catch a glimpse of the seaside compound.
More important than privacy, though, is the fact that since Bush moved to Crawford from Austin in 2000, shortly before entering the White House, Prairie Chapel Ranch has represented a touchstone for Bush -- as fitting for him politically as his work boots and jeans are to the ranch land he is always trying to tame.
Still, he returned to Walker’s Point on Thursday for a four-day visit at his parents’ home, drawn by family ties and family events into the web of his often-overlooked New England origins, generations deeper than his nearly six decades in Texas.
Although Bush grew up in Texas -- and the twang in his speech suggests generations of Texans behind him -- his family roots are in the Northeast: His grandfather represented Connecticut in the U.S. Senate. His father was born in Massachusetts. His mother was raised in a tony suburb of New York City. He was born in Connecticut.
It was the wedding of a nephew, George Prescott Bush, the son of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, that brought him here two years ago, his most recent visit. It is the wedding of a cousin (actually his father’s cousin’s son, Walker Stapleton) on Saturday at the small stone chapel of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, just a few hundred yards down the road from Walker’s Point, that has brought him here again.
In a confluence of unanticipated occurrences, the family this weekend is celebrating a baptism and mourning the death of the president’s great-aunt, 91-year-old Grace Walker.
Walker’s Point is an ancestral home of the summer variety -- albeit one where the president is still reminded to mind his manners.
Two years ago, during a campaign visit to New Hampshire, his wife recounted a much-told tale about a visit she and the president had paid to Walker’s Point a few years before.
“George woke up at 6 a.m., early in the morning as usual, and he padded downstairs for a cup of coffee. And then he went in his parents’ bedroom and sat on the sofa and put his feet up,” Laura Bush said.
“And all of a sudden, Barbara Bush hollered, ‘Put your feet down!’ And George’s dad said, ‘For goodness’ sake, Barbara, he’s the president of the United States.’ And Bar replied, ‘I don’t care, I don’t want his feet on my coffee table.’ ”
The president planned a short visit to Kennebunkport last year, but Hurricane Katrina forced him to cancel. He had drawn sharp criticism for not leaving his ranch to quickly assess the damage to the Gulf Coast, and the political fallout made further vacation time here politically untenable.
The first President Bush reveled in the respite Kennebunkport offered during his White House years. He has returned each summer of his life but two, missing visits only during one year of World War II, when he was a pilot in the South Pacific, and during the summer of 1992, when he was struggling to gain a second presidential term. In the two years since his son last visited, he has twice been host to Bill Clinton, who denied him that second term.
Delving into the inevitable comparison of the 41st president and the 43rd, Ron Kaufman, who worked for the senior Bush in the 1980 presidential campaign, said the preference of the younger Bush for Crawford grew out of his upbringing in West Texas, just as the elder’s Bush’s affection for the Maine coast grew out of his early years in Greenwich, Conn.
“It’s not that he doesn’t love Walker’s Point,” Kaufman said of the president. “He does. He has a great affection for it. It’s just a matter of when you have X number of free days in your life, where do you want to spend them.”
At the ranch, said Scott McClellan, Bush’s former press secretary and a Texan, the president can drive hard on his mountain bike, or go fishing on his pond and take Barney, his Scottish terrier, “along for the ride.”
If he harbors his father’s fondness for the coast, the president keeps it to himself. Based on his public remarks, it is clear that a 100-degree day in Crawford (and that’s what it was Thursday) beats a typical summer day on the Maine coast -- 65 degrees, damp and cloudy, as it was here for much of the day until the sun broke through at dusk.
A defensive edge enters his voice when he senses a griping comparison between Crawford and Kennebunkport -- as when he said famously in 2001 to reporters on a sweltering Texas golf course: “I know a lot of you wish you were on the East Coast, lounging on the beaches, sucking in the salt air. But when you’re from Texas -- and love Texas -- this is where you come home. This is my home.”
Besides, there is little debate about the political virtues of boat shoes and madras pants vs. boots and jeans. In the younger Bush world, boots beat boat shoes every time.