All presidents have their vacation spots, and all vacation spots
have their PR value. The WASPy shores of Hyannis Port helped America
forget JFK's Irish Catholic heritage; Martha's Vineyard and its effete
North-eastern vibe nearly drowned out Clinton's Arkansas drawl; and
Teddy Roosevelt, after leaving the White House but before seeking a
third term, reminded everyone of the burly outdoorsman he was with a
year-long African safari.
And then there's the ranch. Reagan and LBJ had theirs, and now George W.
Bush has his - and the PR mileage is considerable. All last month, the
morning paper and the evening news regularly featured images of the
president in a cowboy hat, the president wearing denim, the president
standing under a great big Texas sky. The message was clear: "This
president is not a politician. He's a Texan."
To be sure, few doubt that Bush genuinely enjoys - even needs - his time
alone among the bluffs and the tumbleweeds, but PR experts agree the
locale also does wonders for his image.
Bush bought his ranch in 1999 as he was preparing his campaign for the
presidency. So while the images spell out "Texas man coming home to his
ranch and the soil," might the reality be closer to "Savvy politician
manipulates the media with a well thought-out backdrop"?
According to Elton Bomer, the retired Texas secretary of state who
assisted Bush in his purchase of the ranch, image was not a factor. "One
thing I can tell you for sure: there were no PR considerations when he
bought that ranch. He purchased it as a great weekend getaway, a place
to go on vacation, a place where he could do some fishing."
Bomer agrees, however, that the ranch has PR value. "It portrays to the
people of the country who he really is, and that is someone who is close
to the land and loves the outdoors sincerely, not for show. I think
people like to know that he's a regular fellow, not a stuffy aristocrat
that wants to stay behind closed doors in air conditioning."
Whether or not Bush bought the ranch with such images in mind, his
handlers are taking full advantage of the photo opportunities. "Bush's
team sees everything in the context of its potential as a photo op,"
claims Mike Hailey, communications director for the Texas Democratic
Party. "Camelot was a state of mind when it was associated with the
Kennedys. Bush's people hope Crawford will invoke that same sort of
imagery, only with a country-western flavor."
LBJ's home away from home
LBJ's ranch served much the same purpose for him. "When he first came
into office, he seemed to be proud of that cowboy image," remembers his
former press secretary George Christian. "He wanted to have pictures
taken riding a horse. The Westerner image was something that he
cultivated. He built it up; he didn't try to hide it."
Over time, however, LBJ found that his down-home image began to
"Later he got a little sensitive about the cowboy image. He thought that
it was hurting him, that maybe the Eastern intellectuals didn't really
appreciate that and looked down on him."
It is unlikely, however, that Bush will experience the same
After all, LBJ was born on his ranch; Bush was born in New Haven, CT, a
place synonymous with East Coast privilege. If anything, Bush's time in
Texas is being used to rid him of that Eastern prep-school aura. "A lot
of people don't really believe he's from Texas," says Bill Cryer, former
press secretary for Texas Governor Ann Richards, who Bush defeated for
the governor's office in 1994. "I think a lot of people, especially
people in Texas, see him as sort of a Northeasterner. He has to overcome
Indeed, most of the cows on Bush's ranch don't even belong to him, local
sources confirm. They belong to Kenneth Englebrecht, who now works as
ranch manager and previously owned the land with his father.
The president owns just three longhorns: two cows given to him by his
senior gubernatorial staff as a Christmas present in 1999, and the calf
of one of them.
(Always quick with a nickname, Bush quickly dubbed them Elton (after
Elton Bomer) and Ofelia (after his secretary, Ofelia Vanden Bosch).
Unfortunately, the name "Elton" turned out to be a bit masculine for
what turned out to be a female animal; Bomer blames himself for the
mistake. Once the slip-up was discovered, Bomer says the governor
changed the cow's name to Eltonia.)
Local sources also confirm that the rickety ranch house seen on TV is
not the one where Bush's family actually stays. That house is on the
same property, only tucked further back, where the press does not wander
all day. The rickety house is, in fact, a recently restored structure
that predates Bush's purchase of the land by at least several decades.
What it's used for today, nobody seems to know.
So, is America buying the Cowboy George image sold by the Western White
House (the same name used for LBJ's ranch), which Bush's handlers called
the ranch to offset the impression they were all on the longest
presidential vacation since Nixon? Do Americans know that, while LBJ was
literally coming home to his ranch, Bush is coming home to his latest
real estate purchase? Does it make a difference in how they perceive
"If you did a poll, you'd find that 95% of the people couldn't make that
distinction," claims Cryer.
State political reporter for The Houston Chronicle RG Ratcliffe
"He's getting a lot of criticism for how much time off he's taking, but
that's really kind of an insider game," he suggests. "In terms of how
the public views him, when they see him, (they see) images of him
working on the ranch, him being the common man out there. That comes
across pretty well. All of these images for the average American are
much more positive than the image of a guy walking out to a helicopter
on the White House lawn and flying out to Camp David."