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Working on range 'helps me put it all in perspective'

A reporter watches as the president jogs, confers with aides, chops wood and sees a rattler.

©Associated Press
August 11, 2002

CRAWFORD, Texas -- President Bush is filthy, his wrist is bleeding and sweat is dripping from his chin. But he is exuberant as he hauls freshly cut cedar to a burn pile.

"We're lifting weights!" he says, a thick log on each shoulder. Throwing them onto the pyramid, he cries: "Oh, baby!"

This is Bush Unplugged at the Texas ranch he loves. It is the president in his anti-Washington mode, in a world where he can roam canyons, jog across the open prairie, fish for bass and rescue his beloved oak trees from the suffocating cedar.

Visiting the 1,600-acre ranch helps him decompress, Bush said as he gave a tour to an Associated Press reporter. But the job is never far away. Aides keep their distance. They also keep the work coming.

"I'm able to clear my mind, and it helps me put it all in perspective," Bush said as his pickup bumped across a field, country music on the radio. "Problems don't go away when we're here, but you can see them in a different light.

"You're always the president -- no president can fully escape the job, nor should they want to, but you can put yourself in a different environment," he said. "When I'm out fishing, I think about issues a lot, but in a way that's unique to Crawford and certainly different from Washington."

Bush's aides are touchy about suggestions he is loafing during a nearly monthlong stay at the ranch, so they allowed a reporter to spend the morning with Bush.

The predawn light is so faint when Bush leaves his house that he can scarcely be discerned from the other end of his driveway. But he has been up since just after 5 a.m., delivering a mug of coffee to his wife at 5:25 and talking to his chief of staff, Andy Card, by 6:10.

Bush does not like chitchat when he jogs. Spotting a herd of cattle, he says simply, "bovine." Minutes pass before he says another word.

At 6:30, as he rounds a corner and turns directly into the sunrise, Bush makes a statement that speaks volumes about his passion for this place. Without stopping, he spreads his arms wide toward the sky, beholding the blazing horizon for a few moments.

"Thanks to the good Lord," he says.

Bush knows that not everyone sees the charm of this hot, dry place, but he figures more people get it than do not. "Most Americans don't sit in Martha's Vineyard, swilling white wine," he says.

There is a patter of footsteps and a rumble of off-road carts behind Bush. Even at this remote place patrolled by fighter jets and by Secret Service agents in sniper towers, Bush is trailed by a security detail.

He does not seem to mind. He points a thumb over his shoulder and says, "I knew they came with the job."

Bush, 56, breathes hard, clears his throat, spits. He does not appear to be running fast, but he is. The proof will be in his times. The reporter, 22 years his junior, falls behind as Bush charges down the trail and disappears.

He runs upright, his chest out. The pavement gives way to white rock. The fields are remarkably green for this time of year, thanks to more than 4 inches of rain last month. Great rolls of hay dot the fields.

Startled wild turkeys take flight as Bush passes, and he flushes out a couple of deer.

Bush finishes his 3 miles in 20:58. Not bad, he says. His best run on this circuit was 20:40.

Bush's cool-down routine is a brisk mile walk past Rainey Creek and the middle fork of the Bosque River, up Balkan Hill, named for a discussion he once had with Condoleezza Rice there. Bush fiddles with his stopwatch, cursing when he cannot get it to do what he wants.

At 7:30, he walks home to shower and change into a gray T-shirt and old jeans.

Half an hour later, Bush rolls up in his pickup at the trailers that house his staff and his conference room.

Awaiting him on a satellite-linked videoconference are Card, Rice and John McLaughlin, the CIA's deputy director. In another frame is Vice President Dick Cheney, sipping coffee at his home in Jackson, Wyo.

At 9:10 a.m., Bush is connected by phone with economic adviser Larry Lindsey and Card for a session on the economy.

After a third meeting, Bush and his aides load up in trucks and head into the back country with chain saws and a sinister-looking brush-thinning tool known as "the ankle biter."

To Bush, "liberating" his oaks from cedar is an act of environmental protection. The non-native cedar robs native oaks of water and light, he says. Eradicating this type of cedar would save a lot of Texas groundwater.

He attacks the cedar with gusto, felling the dense trees by chain saw and chopping them up.

Out here, Secret Service agents trained to take the bullet for the president ensure falling trees do not strike him. Some watch the perimeter around Bush, while those closest to him guide cedar away from his head.

Aides who just minutes earlier were advising Bush in a conference room are now hauling brush to the burn piles. The air is thick with the scents of cedar and chain saw exhaust.

Everyone is soon covered in dirt, bugs and tree debris. The payoff comes when sunlight begins to pour into dark oak groves.

It is a classic scene of male bonding. Some of the men trade insults; Bush doles a few out, lightheartedly mocking his workers' wood-hauling capabilities and their love lives. He seems immune from gibes. Everyone calls him "sir."

Nearly two hours after the start of this project, Bush calls it a day. He pops a wad of grape Big League Chew bubble gum into his mouth and jokingly demands to know who left a giant weed standing.

Driving across the expanse of prairie, Bush is asked whether it is possible the cedar-eradication project can be completed in one lifetime. "No, it's not," he answers. He figures it is 15 percent done now, and concedes that it will all have to be cleared again someday.

Bush bought the ranch in 1999, but there are corners of it he has not explored yet. He heads into a wonderland of limestone canyons, slow-moving creeks and trees he fluently identifies: cedar elms, bois d'arcs, burr, live and lacey oaks.

He hikes to a semicircular overhang where a truly bizarre spectacle can be found: thousands of daddy longlegs spiders clinging to the underside of a ledge, forming two furry, doormat-sized patches.

Also under this rim is a rattlesnake.

Bush directs an aide to throw a rock toward it, without hitting it, so he can determine which way the snake will head when disturbed. The snake slithers up into a nook and coils into a defensive posture.

Back at the house, at 12:10 p.m., out-of-town guests are sitting around the pool. Bush says he will work the phones some more, probably go fishing, maybe hunt dove and read military analyst Eliot A. Cohen's book on wartime leadership, The Supreme Command.

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