CRAWFORD, TEXAS — President Bush spent part of Friday cutting down some of the ubiquitous cedar from his property here, indulging his inner Reagan, much as the former president cleared brush from his own ranch in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
In the morning he received his daily intelligence briefing.
Another routine day at the Western White House?
In the afternoon, with prairie winds blowing and the sky a mysterious gray, the president and First Lady Laura Bush were obliged to scoop up their two Scottish terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley, and hurry in an armored car toward a tornado shelter on their Prairie Chapel Ranch.
The storms swirling about central Texas on Friday -- a tornado touched down north of Waco, perhaps 30 miles from here, and another was said to have been spotted west of the president's ranch -- formed an apt metaphor for the president at the end of a tumultuous year.
He was at the midpoint of a weeklong vacation that normally revolves around ranch chores. But this has been a different and strange holiday in which Bush has been unable to leave behind reminders of the problems he faces, at a low point in public opinion polls after another deadly year in Iraq.
The intelligence briefing Friday included an update on the execution of Saddam Hussein. On Thursday, Bush met with his senior national security advisors at his office on the ranch to work on a new strategy to deal with the insurgency and sectarian violence in Iraq. There also were details to work out on his role in former President Ford's funeral and memorial services. And outside the property, as usual, were anti-war demonstrators, among them Cindy Sheehan, whose son's death in Iraq has led her into many months of public protest.
The vacation began Christmas weekend at Camp David, Md. The president and his wife exchanged gifts: Citrine earrings for her, to match a necklace he had given her for her birthday. For him, a CD by rhythm and blues singer Sam Moore, "Overnight Sensational"; biking shoes; and a new blue suit.
But soon after Bush arrived at the Texas ranch, the cable news channels became a video collage of past American turmoil and current Iraqi mayhem. With the death of Ford, the Watergate years and the end of the Vietnam War were once again playing out.
By Friday, screens were alternating between the studied grace of a presidential farewell in Palm Desert, Calif., and repeated displays of the disheveled Hussein's capture three years ago.
Late on his first night here, well after he would normally have turned out the lights, Bush was told of Ford's death. It took roughly another hour for him to reach Betty Ford on the telephone.
By 7 a.m. the next day, he was speaking before television cameras, offering condolences to the Ford family and paying respect to the former president as "a man of complete integrity who led our country with common sense and kind instincts."
Some of Ford's friends and former staff members complained that the administration dragged its feet in declaring a national day of mourning. White House officials said such complaints did not take into consideration the need to wait until the date of the funeral had been officially announced.
They also took pains to present their response to Ford's death as equivalent in every way to their response to the June 2004 death of former President Reagan. This was a sensitive point after newspapers on Thursday published Ford's sharp criticism of Bush's Iraq policy, made in an interview with the Washington Post in July 2004 and held for publication until after Ford's death.
And, having begun his vacation with word of Ford's death, the president is ending it several hours earlier than planned, heading back to Washington on Monday to participate in the public viewing of the former president at the Capitol. On Tuesday, he is scheduled to speak at the funeral at the Washington National Cathedral, again taking on the public role of mourner-in-chief.
As for the tornado shelter, it went unused Friday. The Bushes and dogs sat in their car for a period that White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said "wasn't terribly long."
After the immediate threat passed, they headed back to the ranch house to continue their vacation, such as it was.