Patrick Bibb, a 19-year-old from Dallas, glanced at his cell phone. He was in the middle of his economics class at Texas Christian University on a February morning. His caller ID read withheld. He decided not to answer. When class ended, he checked his messages and found that George W. Bush had been trying to reach him.
The sophomore listened to the voice mail. He heard the former president of the United States thank him at least four times. Bush was happy that the teenager had been selling welcome home george & laura signs for $20 to people all over Bush's neighborhood in Texas. "I hope this message is sufficient" to show appreciation, Bibb heard Bush say. Bibb dutifully listened, hung up and went to his other classes.
Bibb, a budding entrepreneur, had decided to make and sell the signs after he learned that the former president would be moving close to his parents' house. The placards went up all around the exclusive Preston Hollow neighborhood in North Dallas, which is studded with homes worth $5 million to $20 million. Bibb used some of the profits to pay his tuition and decided to donate the rest to a nearby elementary school.
He settled into accounting class. His phone rang again. Bibb decided to pick up. "Excuse me, I need to go to talk to the president," Bibb wisecracked to a pal as he left the room. It was Bush again.
He began thanking Bibb, repeatedly, for making the signs. Bibb listened patiently. He didn't mean to be rude, but he finally said: "I'm really sorry, Mr. President. I'm in the middle of class." He needed to get off the phone. Bush replied: "No problem, that's where you're supposed to be."
Weeks later, the undergraduate was still wondering about his chat with the man who, only a short time ago, was arguably the most powerful man on the planet. "I had just wanted him to know that people still cared about him, despite the public-opinion polls," says Bibb.
Bibb's not the only one. Molly Vilbig, who lives nearby, believes Bush had gotten word that her grandson had once tried, at the tender age of 6, to donate $1 to the first Bush for President campaign. That's why, Vilbig suspects, the ex-president called and invited the 14-year-old to come over. Under the watchful eye of Secret Service agents, the boy walked to Bush's home. The two settled into chairs in the backyard. "Ask me anything you want," Bush said to the boy, according to the grandmother.
They spent 90 minutes together. And when the teenager went home, he told his grandmother all about it. She was Republican, as were many of the folks in the neighborhood. In the following days, she saw her grandson getting chummy with the Secret Service agents on the street. One day she called Jake to dinner. He came in, a little upset. "I was just about to learn Laura Bush's Secret Service code name," she heard her grandson say.
Bush has always been friendly. And maybe, after years of being cordoned off by security, his face time with others carefully choreographed and his days scheduled to the hilt, it's refreshing to him just to have the chance for a spontaneous chat with a neighbor. But Bush's choice of conversational companions may speak to something deeper. He lived in a bubble during much of his time in Washington; having left office with a disapproval rating of 73 percent, he might be forgiven for being a bit hesitant about what awaits him on the outside. He's declined to give a major interview since leaving office (he and his aides declined to cooperate with this story). So Bush seems to be easing into life back home in Texas, reaching out quietly to reconnect with old friends, stalwart supporters—and the occasional teenage fanboy, who may or may not yet be fully aware of the harsh public judgments, even in Republican circles, of the guy who just moved in next door.
"He is in home territory for sure, no question about it. And that's where he wants to be," says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. "He doesn't enjoy naysayers and critics and opposition. Never has. And right now, he needs that nurturing cocoon that he is in. He is not calling people who didn't support him. He is calling people who supported him, those 14-year-olds."
"But we will see how serious he wants to get in being a participant in the debate over his legacy, beyond writing his side of the story," Buchanan continues. "He may decide, forget it. Or he may decide to become his own version of the Jimmy Carter model. Or he might just stay on the lecture circuit and make money. He has all those options."
And he's exploring them, to be sure. Bush made his first foray into the lucrative post presidency speaking circuit last month, cracking up an audience of Calgary oilmen for a reported $400 a ticket. He's got more talks ahead, including one with former president Bill Clinton in late May. He's busy writing a book and aggressively raising money for a $300 million library, museum and think tank on the campus of Southern Methodist University. And he's trying to find his place in Texas, a land where he once was king.
When Bush flew home from Washington Jan. 20, he made a very safe bet. He landed in Midland. His friends are among the most prominent figures in the small, affluent west Texas town. It's where he was raised, where the family name carried serious weight. It's where Laura Bush, whose approval ratings were nearly twice her husband's when they left Washington, comes from. "They turned out 30,000 people here," says his longtime Texas accountant, Bob McCleskey. "And that's without giving out food and beer. Most people in Texas, by and large, hold him in high regard because he made a decision and stuck with it."
Those Texas friends say Bush seems remarkably unchanged by his eight years in Washington. "Every time I talk to him or have been around him, he has been very upbeat," says his buddy Nolan Ryan, the baseball legend Bush has described as his "hero."
Ryan helped orchestrate one of the rare public appearances Bush has made since leaving office. In April, Ryan, now the president of the Texas Rangers, invited Bush, once a limited partner in the team, to throw out the first pitch of the season. "He was well received," says Ryan. "It was a very positive day."
Ryan knows a little about stepping off the mound. Leave office, Ryan says, and "you're just another citizen of the United States."
When Bush last lived here full time, he was a media darling with sky-high approval ratings. Karl Rove had conducted a "front-porch campaign," inspired by the candidacy of William McKinley. Governor Bush waited for national GOP leaders to come to him at the stately white-columned governor's mansion in Austin. Republican rainmakers trooped up the steps and threw their support to Bush's presidential campaign.
Today, the mansion is in ruins—almost torched to the ground last June by an arsonist who still hasn't been caught. And the Bush brand, once spoken of in the halls of the legislature with awe, is now a little like Lord Voldemort's. "It is the name that shall not be spoken," says Texas political consultant Bill Miller, who has worked with both Democrats and Republicans. "The emotional response from people is almost always negative, never positive. It's a different time and a different deal."
Earlier this year a state lawmaker from Waco, which is close to Bush's ranch, proposed a bill praising the ex-president as a man who "lived each day with the safety and prosperity of his fellow citizens foremost in his mind; he took a principled stand on a wide range of issues of great importance to every American, and his tireless efforts will not soon be forgotten." Further, the measure held that Bush should be lauded for his "new antiterrorism tools."
It was similar to the thousands of salutes handed out every year without a whisper of opposition. But this one met with intense resistance by one Ft. Worth state representative, who said it seemed like Bush was being congratulated for "his waterboarding and other torture techniques." The original proposal was withdrawn, rewritten and resubmitted. At the last hearing on the bill in late April, no witnesses showed up to defend it or attack it. It now sits in limbo—a little like the person it was written for.
Only a little more than a month after leaving Washington, Bush dropped in to see students at Pershing Elementary near his new house in Dallas, according to a local blogger. He asked the grade-schoolers if they knew who he was. One student shouted: "George Washington!"
He quickly answered: "George Washington Bush."
Texas today is different from the heady place it was when Bush left. Unemployment is rising, and deepening recessions are predicted for some urban areas. And though it is still firmly a Republican state, the GOP holds just a two-seat lead in the Texas House. Obama secured 44 percent of the vote in Texas, improving on the 38 percent Kerry won when he ran against Bush in 2004. Navigating the changed terrain is tricky business for Bush and his handlers—one that involves carefully picking his spots.
There has been resistance to the policy institute, or think tank, he's seeking to establish at Southern Methodist University. Critics see it as a place designed to burnish the Bush legacy, glossing over problems—and wounding the school's academic independence in the process. Defenders say it will be a forward-looking organization devoted to examining 21st-century global concerns.
A state district judge ordered Bush to give up to a six-hour deposition in a civil lawsuit claiming that SMU officials broke the law when they acquired and tore down a condominium complex to make room for his center. Bush's lawyers say they will appeal, and legal observers say it is highly unusual for sitting or former presidents to be compelled to testify in litigation.
Meanwhile, Bush has talked to a political-science class at SMU, worked out at the school's training facilities and met with old hands to plot strategy for his presidential center. "It seems that former president Bush is always on campus," says student-body president-elect Patrick Kobler. "Though I may not agree with every policy he put forth, I believe that he led from the heart, meaning he looked beyond what was considered popular and instead did what he thought was right."
He has set up an office in North Dallas, where, friends say, he is deeply enmeshed in his memoirs. The book will revolve around key decisions of his presidency—and of his life before Washington, such as when, at 40, he stopped drinking. "I know he is working on his book," says billionaire Tom Hicks, his longtime friend. "I get the sense that he has the confidence that history will judge him a lot better than The New York Times or the current media does."
Hicks, who made Bush a wealthy man by buying the Rangers from his ownership group, helped the Bushes get settled in their spot on Daria Place—right next door to his estate. Another Texas billionaire, Harold Simmons, a major player in the world's titanium supply, is nearby; Simmons helped bankroll the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry. The men who helped give Bush the platform, the money and the political muscle to win his various campaigns are within easy walking distance of his new front porch.
Fred Meyer, former chairman of the Texas GOP, was on hand at Ellington Airport in Houston when Bush's father came home. "And there were not a lot of us there," Meyer says, contrasting the reception with the "gang" present for 43's return. An ailing economy had dampened enthusiasm for the father. But 41's approval ratings had rebounded to 56 percent by the time he jetted to Houston, and he was buoyed by the many friends he'd made over the course of a long career. Larry Temple, formerly special counsel to Lyndon Johnson, says the vibe surrounding 43's return is different. "I see people reliving [George W.] Bush's presidency. There is a lingering dissatisfaction. It may be the war, it may be the residual effects of the economy," he says.
"Presidents don't get a full and fair hearing until everyone who was alive when they were alive is dead and so are they," says UT's Buchanan. It will take time.
The waiting must be hard on Bush, a man still bristling with a jangly, kinetic energy at 62. One day in Dallas, according to a local blog, he visited Pershing Elementary and a parent asked him to consider coming to work at the school's haunted-house carnival.
"I'd make a good ghost," Bush replied.
WithAnne Belli Perez