I live in Preston Hollow, an upscale Dallas neighborhood bounded by Northwest Highway to the south, Royal Lane to the north, Midway Road to the west, and Hillcrest Road to the east. The homes range in price from $450,000 on the southeast end of the neighborhood to the tens of millions in what is known as “the honey pot,” the estate area on the western edge. When I first moved into a condo in Preston Hollow back in 1992, the list of notable neighbors included George W. Bush, then part-owner of the Texas Rangers. He lived less than two minutes away from me in a relatively modest 3,600-square-foot ranch-style house on Northwood (not in the honey pot). He seemed to be just like any other dad. He jogged. He stood in his front yard and threw a tennis ball to one of his dogs. He picked up his twins from school. From time to time he’d take them and his wife, Laura, over to Slider and Blues, the neighborhood dive, and order a greasy pizza. He was amiable and gracious, and his unpretentiousness was impressive. The first time I interviewed him, not long after he’d announced his bid for governor, we met at his office in Preston Center, just a few minutes from his house. It was a dump full of cheap furniture. He threw his Haggar sports coat on the floor and said with a chuckle, “Hey, have a seat if you can find one.”
Fourteen eventful years later, the guy I used to call Bushhead (he called me Hollandsworthless) is coming home, and no one in the neighborhood knows what to make of it. When the news first leaked that Laura was looking at houses in the area, one of my friends called and said, “He’s going to be miserable. What in the world is he going to do?” After Mary Candace Evans, who writes a popular blog about Dallas real estate (DallasDirt), broke the story in December that the first couple had spent $3 million for an 8,500-square-foot home on Daria Place, an exclusive cul-de-sac in the honey pot, another neighbor asked me, “Does he think he’s going to get to ride his bike up and down the streets? This is North Dallas. There’s tons of traffic. The Secret Service won’t let him go a hundred yards.”
It is never easy for a president to make the transition back to normal life. One day you’re the leader of the free world, and the next you’re . . . what exactly? In a recent interview, Bush caught perfectly the anticlimactic nature of the change. “My day is going to go from getting up early-early and being at the Oval Office at 6:45 a.m.,” he said, “to waking up at 6:45 a.m., getting Mama the coffee, and kind of wandering around.”
In Preston Hollow, people are already joking about how Bush is going to fill his idle time. They like to point out that he can always hop his backyard fence and wander over to the Italian-style 28,996-square-foot mansion of Tom Hicks, the Dallas billionaire who bought the Texas Rangers from Bush and other partners back in 1998 for $250 million. Or maybe he’ll jog down to Mark Cuban’s French château to shoot hoops. Or he could sit on the front porch of T. Boone Pickens’s Mediterranean villa and chat about energy independence. Everyone assumes he’ll make daily trips up to the Cooper Aerobics Center, which is about a seven-minute drive away, to get in his workouts. Even at 62, Bush is still a fearsome presence in the gym: He can bench-press 185 pounds five times in a row. One gym member I talked to said, “With all the time he’s now got on his hands, he could get really focused and break two hundred.”
Then there’s Laura. She herself has admitted that the new world is going to be strange for her; she hasn’t cooked a meal since Bush was first elected governor, fourteen years ago. (Luckily, eight years of state dinners have not caused her husband to lose his passion for hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches made with nothing but white bread and Kraft cheese.) And although Laura has said she hopes to do “a lot of volunteering” in Dallas, one Preston Hollow socialite I talked to is worried that such a scheme could backfire. “There’s only so many times you can be chairman of a charity ball before you go stark raving mad,” she told me.
The real problem, of course, is that Preston Hollow, like the rest of Dallas County, is a different place from what it was when the Bushes packed up their boxes in 1994 and moved to the Governor’s Mansion. Although out-of-town reporters still like to describe Dallas as one of the last bastions of Bush Country, there is a clear sense of Bush fatigue around here. “I assume he knows how many Obama signs were sticking in people’s yards this year,” one of my neighbors said. (Obama took 57 percent of the Dallas County vote, becoming the first Democrat to win the presidential race here since 1964.) What was particularly stunning, at least to me, was that John McCain actually lost one of Preston Hollow’s seventeen precincts. A few of my conservative neighbors told me that they had voted for Obama mainly because they were fed up with Bush.
Simply put, the man moving into the house on Daria is not the man who moved out of the house on Northwood. Back then he was Bushhead; now he’s the president who dragged us into a bitterly unpopular war and presided over the biggest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Back then he was Mr. Busharoo; now he’s reviled by critics the world over for promoting torture and bungling the response to Hurricane Katrina. Even as his presidency wound down, Bush had to endure the constant rants of editorialists, bloggers, cable commentators, and Democrats and Republicans alike, all of them determined to get in their last licks. CNN’s Paul Begala, Bill Clinton’s former strategist, called him a “high-functioning moron.” When he tried to hold a press conference in Iraq in December to talk about some of the good things he had done, an Iraqi journalist stood up, threw his shoes at Bush’s head, and called him a dog. The journalist immediately became a national hero.
Clearly then, the main postpresidential task Bush will have to tackle is the restoration of his public reputation. To begin, he has expressed interest in writing a memoir and hitting the lecture circuit, reminding his audiences that there have been no other terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 and that, because of his military interventions, 60 million people have been liberated from two brutal regimes. He is also intent on getting his $300 million library built on the Southern Methodist University campus, which is a little more than three miles south of his new home. Expected to open in 2013, it will contain an archive housing the papers from his presidency, a museum celebrating his accomplishments, and a policy institute filled with neoconservative scholars who will presumably promote Bush’s vision of freedom and the spread of democracy.
But the public’s disdain for him is such that he could very well lie low for a while, putting off the speeches and the book writing. Publishers reportedly are not in any hurry to buy the president’s memoirs, fearing sluggish sales (though Laura recently inked her own deal, with Scribner). And so far, fund-raising for the library has been very modest: Only $3 million had been raised when the latest reports were filed in August. It’s not hard to understand why. When it does finally open, even if it is a couple of years behind schedule, plenty of people, like Cindy Sheehan, will show up just to protest its existence. Others will simply mock it mercilessly. Already bloggers and late-night comedians (God, they’re going to miss him) are asking if there will be an Abu Ghraib Room (featuring whips and blindfolds), an Iraq War Room (after you complete your first visit, they make you go back), and an Economy Room (located in the toilet).
Nevertheless, Bush’s close friends tell me that he is completely at peace as he leaves the White House, convinced that he stayed true to his vision without compromising his principles. “There’s not a trace of anger or self-pity in him,” said one Dallas man I know who recently visited the president. (If you think he’s exaggerating, go watch the footage of Bush in December at the Kennedy Center cheerfully kissing the cheek of Barbra Streisand, who thinks he’s the Antichrist.) What’s especially remarkable, the man added, is that Bush does not seem remotely exhausted, regardless of the extra gray hair. “George is ready for the next challenge,” he said. “Don’t misunderestimate him.”
My bet is that Bush will go down the same kind of postpresidential road as Jimmy Carter (who also left the White House with poor approval ratings), focusing his attention on humanitarian projects. What Bush’s critics don’t remember—or don’t want to remember—is that the “compassionate conservatism” he talked about so much during his first presidential campaign did lead him to create unprecedented initiatives to provide HIV/AIDS medicine to the developing world. (Bono, of all people, called Bush a hero for his AIDS work in Africa.) And when Bush gave one of his exit interviews recently to ABC’s Charlie Gibson, he mentioned that he wanted to encourage people in their sixties to retire in places where they are needed—“go help people deal with malaria or AIDS,” he said. Perhaps because the news media were so ready for Bush to get off the stage, they completely ignored his plan: essentially, a Peace Corps for baby boomer retirees. I was intrigued by the idea, and I hope he pulls it off.
In fact, the other day, I considered buying one of those signs that have begun appearing in a few Preston Hollow yards that read “Welcome Home, George & Laura.” They were being sold at twenty bucks a pop by an enterprising (and clearly very capitalistic) Preston Hollow kid who needs some extra cash to pay for college. I didn’t want to buy one so that I could let people know that I thought Bush was a great president. I wanted people to know that I like second chances.