ANALYSIS: Public Image - W's ranch spurs homely feel to President'simage - George Bush bought his Texas ranch just prior to thepresidential primaries. Does this make it a true home or a PR ploy?Douglas Quenqua reports

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

backfire.



"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

backlash.



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

(that)."



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.



Cowboy George



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

him?



"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

agrees.



"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."



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