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Farewell to George W. Bush is smooth, but some cracks show

Obama and his predecessor are cordial, but the crowd reactions and the inaugural address display evidence of the controversies surrounding Bush's tenure.

January 21, 2009|Maura Reynolds

WASHINGTON — The choreography was smooth and the smiles were gracious, but all the same, George W. Bush's exit from Washington carried a measure of pain.

The now-former president fulfilled his role flawlessly. He extended his hand again and again to his successor -- on the steps of the White House for morning coffee, as they entered a limousine to ride together to the inauguration, on the grandstand in the shadow of the Capitol dome. And before he left the White House for the last time, Bush tucked a private note to Obama into the drawer of the desk in the Oval Office that aides said would convey his warmest wishes for his successor.

But swirling around Bush throughout the day were sights and sounds confirming that his presidency, which began with great controversy eight years ago, had ended in controversy as well.

Just as demonstrators clogged the barricades to protest his court-mediated victory in the 2000 election, so the disenchanted lined Pennsylvania Avenue on Tuesday to express their dismay with the way his presidency turned out.

On the drive to Capitol Hill, the current and future presidents passed protesters carrying signs reading "Arrest Bush." When Bush entered the grandstand with the band playing "Hail to the Chief" for the last time, the crowd below began singing a different refrain: "Hey, Hey, Good-bye." One man waved his shoe.

And finally, when Bush's helicopter lifted off from the east front of the Capitol, cheers rose from the crowd and throng stretching down the National Mall.

Perhaps nothing seemed to symbolize the wounded presidency as much as former Vice President Dick Cheney, who attended the inaugural ceremony in a wheelchair, a cane clutched over his knees. Aides said he injured his back moving boxes into his new residence in Virginia.

Bush is famously thick-skinned. But as the morning wore on, his smile appeared to grow more strained.

Perhaps one reason was the unmistakable enthusiasm for his successor, who drew far greater crowds than Bush did to either of his two inaugurals. Or perhaps it was that despite Obama's repeated thanks and handshakes, many of the words of his inaugural speech must have stung.

"On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics," Obama said.

"Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed," the newly sworn-in president said. "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America."

Obama appeared to make an effort to be gracious, repeatedly thanking Bush for his help. After the swearing-in, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife bade farewell to the Cheneys, who departed in a motorcade. Then the Obamas walked the Bushes to the stairs of the helicopter. Obama gave Bush one final hug, the first ladies embraced and the Bushes climbed the stairs. Now a private citizen, George W. Bush turned and gave one final wave. The Obamas waved back.

Bush's inner circle and the Republican faithful express untarnished pride in his accomplishments and frustration that his presidency has been underappreciated. Several dozen White House staffers organized a private send-off for the president in a closed hangar at Andrews Air Force base, at which both the former president and former first lady spoke movingly, according to people familiar with the gathering.

Bush then took off for his childhood home of Midland, Texas, from which he had departed eight years ago for his first inauguration. After a rally with friends and supporters, the Bushes were headed for their ranch near Crawford, Texas, no longer known as the Western White House.

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maura.reynolds@latimes.com

Times staff writer Tom Hamburger of our Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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