Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

George W. Bush loves his retreat near Crawford, where life is just perfect—or was, until property values soared, souvenir shops sprang up everywhere, the media invaded, and the town became divided over its most famous resident.

Before Blackhawk helicopters circled overhead or Secret Service sharpshooters lurked in the switchgrass or Saudi princes breezed down Main Street, Crawford was an ordinary small town, its only landmark an old cottonwood tree that stood next to the blinking red stoplight. Cottonwoods rarely grow far from rivers or creeks, but this one had sprung, improbably, beside the cracked blacktop, in a ditch where rainwater pooled after storms. It was a stately, wide-limbed tree, used by locals for giving directions and approximating distances, as if it were the axis on which the town revolved. Ranchers used to trade cattle under its splayed branches, and children—now grandparents—had climbed up its furrowed trunk. The tree had endured hail, tornadoes, and months without rain, and lightning had spared it more than once, skittering past it down the telephone wires. But it could not endure the changes coming to Crawford. Early one morning in August, without warning or explanation, the tree was cut down and hauled away.

Anyone wondering why only had to look a few feet beyond the tree's severed trunk to the Yellow Rose, the eighth gift shop to open on Main Street since Crawford's most famous resident, George W. Bush, became the forty-third president of the United States. Before it was felled that day, the tree had obscured the view from the street of the Yellow Rose. Now the gaudy storefront—a scaled-down reproduction of the Alamo—dominates the center of Crawford. Kids rode their bikes down Main Street to stare at the spot where the tree had stood; one woman salvaged part of its trunk, which lay across the sidewalk, and carried it home. All afternoon the tree was discussed under the bubble dryers at the Great Shapes beauty shop, over cups of coffee at the Fina, and around city hall. The rumor around Crawford was that the Yellow Rose's owner, an out-of-towner named Bill Johnson, had cut down the tree himself, although the truth was more complicated. The actual culprit was the Texas Department of Transportation; the tree had been not on Johnson's property but on the state's right-of-way. "I told them that the tree was theirs and if a branch so much as scratched this place, it was their problem," Johnson told me. "I said, 'You're on notice. I spent a lot of money over here.'" Then he shrugged. "That thing was half-dead anyway."

Crawford's 705 citizens had been unfailingly polite as the slow rhythm of life was disrupted by a cavalcade of reporters, hucksters, protesters, curiosity-seekers, tourists, and Secret Service agents, but the reaction to the tree's razing was swift and decisive. That night, someone—no one will say who—hurled a rock at the Yellow Rose, smashing its front window. Police chief Donnie Tidmore's investigation has so far turned up no leads. "A few people came up to me afterward," Tidmore recalled from his one-room station house on Main Street, with an expression of barely contained amusement. "They said, 'Chief, I want you to know I didn't break that window, but that's only because someone beat me to it.'"

Crawford lies eighteen miles west of Waco, on a stretch of the Santa Fe railroad line that runs north along the Blackland Prairie. The town is little more than a wide place in the road—a place that evoked, until recently, the same desolation as the town of Thalia in The Last Picture Show . A handful of mom-and-pop stores lines one side of the two-block span of Main Street, which runs parallel to the railroad tracks, past grain silos and a new billboard that says, "Welcome to Crawford, Home of President George W. Bush." I first drove into town at the start of the president's "working vacation" in August, when the town was overrun with grasshoppers, which stuck to tire wheels and crunched under boot heels and gnawed their way through acres of Central Texas farmland. Which scourge residents dreaded more—crop-devouring insects or the swarming White House press corps—was debatable. Inside the Crawford Elementary School gym, which the White House had transformed into a press briefing room, school officials installed a steel barricade to keep reporters at bay, allaying one parent's concern that journalists might be as predatory of children as they were of breaking news stories. Reporters intent on catching a glimpse of the president had to spend their days here, as I did for most of August, killing time while awaiting the hoped-for-but-infrequent announcements from the White House Press Office that President Bush had decided to grant us an audience.

Long gone are the more casual days of political reporting, when Lyndon Johnson used to barrel around his ranch in his Lincoln convertible, entertaining reporters with stories of the ribald ways of bulls. The scrutiny of the 24-hour news cycle, in which one misstep can spell disaster, makes it impossible for a president to be so spontaneous or collegial, even if Bush were so inclined, which he is not. He values his privacy more than recent presidents have, and he harbors a dislike for the media that dates back to his encounters with them during his father's 1988 presidential campaign. The Bush ranch, which is eight miles from town, is strictly off-limits to the press unless the president extends a rare invitation there. Reporters usually see him only when he leaves the ranch, and in a carefully stage-managed setting. When Bush visited the Coffee Station on Main Street last New Year's Eve, the cafe's diners served as a backdrop of "real" Americana, despite the TV cameras trained on them, the gawkers peering in, and the watchful stares of Secret Service agents, who had previously searched them outside with magnetometers in the 39-degree chill. Bush, wearing blue jeans, took time to shake hands and field questions from reporters. His visit was a chance to connect with fellow Texans and the media, but it was, above all, a photo op: a portrait for the press of the president as a regular, down-to-earth guy. "Order me a cheeseburger," Bush had said as he

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