Man About Town
Senior editor Pamela Colloff talks about George W. Bush and this month's cover story, "Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch."
texasmonthly.com: Who came up with the idea for you to go to Crawford and cover the president? Was this something that has been in the works for a long time?
Pamela Colloff: The editor of the magazine, Evan Smith, thought it would be interesting to send me up to Crawford for the month of August. At the time, I think we both assumed that I would be able to interview President Bush and/or visit the ranch. Once we realized this was not going to happen, the challenge that I had as a writer was to figure out how to tell the story when its main character was almost always out of sight.
texasmonthly.com: In your story you mention waiting in the gym day in and day out. Can you describe a typical day? What did you do all day, while you were waiting?
PC: Sitting in the gym waiting for news felt like the opposite of news gathering. We arrived every day at nine in the morning, and we left around six o’clock. We were provided with catered food, which the news organizations paid for, so there was no reason to ever leave. The Press Office even provided us with transcripts of anything the president said when he left the ranch, so we didn’t even need to take notes. Everything about sitting in the gym seemed completely anathema to journalism. Rather than going out into the world and talking to people and reporting on what was going on, we were basically fed quotes and headlines.
texasmonthly.com: Was this your first time to go to Crawford? If so, was it what you were expecting?
PC: I had never been to Crawford before August. I was surprised at how tiny it was. The other thing that surprised me was that the landscape was very plain and stark. It looked nothing like the Hill Country. A lot of reporters were a little baffled as to why Bush had bought in this area (except that it was very cheap). Until I visited Larry Mattlage’s ranch and saw the prettier part of western McLennan County, I didn’t get it. As you drive into Crawford, it’s very, very flat and it’s very brown—not unlike Midland.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting aspect to working on this story?
PC: I really enjoy working with Judy Walgren, the photographer who shot the photos for this story. We were in Crawford at the same time, and so we saw things together. Judy helped me see what the story was. When I first arrived in Crawford, I made a panicked phone call to Evan Smith and told him I didn’t think there was a story there. He told me to spend a few days in Crawford and to see what I found, which turned out to be good advice. After spending the whole month there, I could have written a book.
texasmonthly.com: Did anything unusual happen to you while working on this story?
PC: People in Crawford were kind to me. Within a minute of meeting Larry Mattlage, he leaned down to examine my tires and told me that I was about to get a flat. (I’d been driving around in 100 degree heat on bald tires, one of which had a screw stuck in it—something I’d been too preoccupied to notice.) Larry patched up my tire and sent me to a garage in Waco that fixed my car. That’s not usually how an interview begins!
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect to working on this story?
PC: The White House Press Office. Some people at the Press Office were difficult to deal with, and made things difficult for no other reason than they could. Texas Monthly has covered George W. Bush for eight years without any problems. I don’t know exactly what changed, but I could not even get phone calls returned from the Press Office.
texasmonthly.com: What did you like best about Crawford?
PC: The people in Crawford are warm and kind. A lot of people interviewed there compared their town with Mayberry, and I understood why. Everyone knew everyone, and families had been there for generations. The people were well educated, thanks to an excellent school system. People were devoted to their families and their churches. In many ways, it was the way you always hope that a small town will be, but rarely is.
texasmonthly.com: What did you like least about Crawford?
PC: My only disappointment was that I had assumed that President Bush really interacted with the town’s residents and came into town frequently. In fact, he has practically no contact with Crawford—although he mentions it a lot in his speeches.
texasmonthly.com: Did you find most residents supportive of the press corps onslaught?
PC: People were generally understanding. They understood that we had a job to do, and that we weren’t necessarily happy about being there either. (Many members of the press corps had left spouses and children thousands of miles away in Washington.) When we first arrived in Crawford, the Chamber of Commerce threw us a big barbecue, which was extremely nice. And sometimes people from town would just stop by the gym to talk.
texasmonthly.com: What was it like being a part of the press corps in such close quarters?
PC: For me, it felt like I’d transferred into a high school in the middle of a semester. All the other reporters knew each other very well; they had traveled together, in some cases, for years, while I knew no one. But everyone was welcoming. I was surprised by just how collegial reporters in the press corps were to one another.
texasmonthly.com: You mention in your story that you got to see George W. only once. What was your first impression when you saw him?
PC: I was really struck by how much he has aged. You could see the pressure he’s under on his face. I got to interview Bush in 1999, when he was governor, along with several other people at the magazine, and he seemed much younger and more relaxed then. But his life was obviously different then too.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
PC: I’d like to go back to Crawford in a couple of years to see just how much it’s changed. This summer was a turning point, and I don’t think the town will ever be the same.