CRAWFORD, Texas — During his eight years as president, Ronald Reagan spent approximately one year in California, much of that time at his ranch near Santa Barbara. George W. Bush is on pace to beat that record--by a country mile.
During the first 100 days of his presidency, Bush will have spent all or part of 16 days at his 1,580-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch by the time his current four-day sojourn ends today.
That projects to 467 days over an eight-year stretch, or 233 days, give or take a few hours, should he serve one term.
As much as Bush may echo Reagan in policy and pace, however, Crawford isn't Santa Barbara. Nor is it Martha's Vineyard, Bill Clinton's preferred vacation spot. Nor even Kennebunkport, Maine, where the first President Bush went for what he called "re-creation."
It isn't coastal. It isn't chi-chi quaint. But in the mild spring, it is green, and it is friendly.
All that seems just fine with this president from West Texas.
What should we make of these presidential retreats? Let the president explain it himself, as he did Wednesday evening at a Republican fund-raising dinner in Little Rock, Ark., on his way to the ranch.
"I'm headed to Crawford, Texas, after this speech. They say, well, you must not like to live in Washington because you like to go to your ranch or Camp David. Well, I like to do both. I like--I love my life in the White House, I love getting up every morning and going into this majestic office that we call the Oval Office.
"But I also like to stay in touch with the people that got me here."
That's where the ranch comes in.
"I like to get outside of Washington. I like to go to where the space is open, where I can walk around with Spot and Barney, the two family dogs. My wife loves our country, the country house we've got, and so do I, and so I beg your forgiveness for not eating dinner here tonight. . . . I'm fixing to get on Air Force One and take it to Crawford, Texas."
The ranch is about seven miles from the center of Crawford. That would be an intersection where a flashing red light is sufficient to keep control at the town's main junction. The nearest full-blown traffic light is perhaps another seven miles away.
Crawford has an elementary school, a former gas station now grown large--it was recently converted into a corner restaurant and gas station and named the Coffee Station.
It's not difficult to reach Crawford from Waco, the largest nearby town, about 25 miles away. Just drive south on Interstate 35, northwest on Texas 6 and then southwest on Highway 185.
But to stray from the route brings new directions, twists through the Texas countryside, and, in either case this time of year, a path through acres of wildflowers that give the pastures the down-home hue of embers glowing at the base of a barbecue kettle.
"Go past the grocery store. Turn left onto Old Lorena Road, left on U.S. 84, go to the stoplight. That's McGregor. Turn right. That'll carry you into Crawford," says an elderly man at a conveniently placed Chevron Food Mart.
Perhaps, but it also carries one down an unmarked, potholed route, past such delightfully Texas-named roads as Mourning Dove Lane and Longhorn Drive and, back on track, past what appears to be the place that carnival rides go when they take long vacations. That would be the intersection of Galaxy and Cedar Rock roads.
Eventually, with the proper turns, all roads lead to Crawford. It really is near the heart of Texas.
The president did peel away from the ranch on two occasions--first on Thursday to make an appearance at an annual fund-raising affair his mother sponsored in Houston to benefit her literacy project and a second time, on Friday, to take part in the dedication of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin.
Bush uses the visits home to spend time with his parents.
During the only dark days of George W. Bush's primary election campaign, in New Hampshire early last year, his father's vigorous defense of his candidacy verged on becoming a liability. Ever since, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush have kept a public distance, lest the business of running the country looked too much like a family business.
To be sure, the president known around the White House as 41 and his son known as 43 (as in the 41st and 43rd presidents, respectively), have kept up an almost daily, and entirely private, dialogue. They have visited at the ranch and at the White House.
But Thursday in Houston, the two presidents, Barbara Bush (wife of one, mother of the other) and current First Lady Laura Bush joined one another on stage at the Wortham Center to celebrate literacy--one of Barbara Bush's projects as first lady and a continuing interest.
Each year the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy's Celebration of Reading brings several authors to Houston to read from their works. Thursday's program, the former first lady said, raised $2 million to be split equally between literacy projects in Texas and in the rest of the country.