Bush leaves White House for last time

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The Independent US

George Bush left the White House for the last time today with a shrug and a smile, capping a roller-coaster two terms marked by war, recession and the biggest terrorist attack on US soil.

Bush and his successor, President-elect Barack Obama, briefly stood inside the White House chatting before walking out of the North Portico and across a red carpet to a waiting presidential limousine that took them to the Capitol building.

The incumbent and Obama, who is facing daunting domestic and international challenges, pulled out onto Pennsylvania Avenue and drove through huge throngs waiting with anticipation to see a slice of history.

Earlier, Bush welcomed Obama at the White House with a few hearty pats on the arm, a symbolic gesture to the transfer of power soon to take place.

Obama and his wife, Michelle, walked up the steps of the North Portico and exchanged handshakes, smiles and pecks on the cheeks with the outgoing president and first lady Laura Bush.

After posing for a photograph, the foursome went inside for coffee in the Blue Room with Vice President-elect Joe Biden, his wife, Jill, and leaders of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

Keeping with a White House ritual, Bush left a note for Obama in his desk in the Oval Office, wishing him well as he takes the reins of power.

"I won't provide any details, but the theme is similar to what he's said since election night about the fabulous new chapter President-elect Obama is about to start, and that he wishes him the very best," outgoing White House press secretary Dana Perino said.

She said the two-term Republican incumbent wrote the message to his Democratic successor on Monday and left it in the top drawer of his desk, which was crafted from timbers from the H.M.S. Resolute and given to the U.S. by Great Britain in 1879.

Arriving early, Bush spoke on the phone with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, former White House chief of staff Andy Card and T.D. Jakes, the pastor of a megachurch in Dallas who will preach at a private church service that Obama is attending before the Inauguration.

Perino said the president's mood was good. "He's the president of the United States, the way he always is. He hasn't changed. He gave me a big kiss on the forehead."

She said Bush took one last stroll around the south grounds of the White House. He spent his final morning at the White House with his wife, their daughters, Barbara and Jenna; and his father and mother, former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush.

After the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol, Bush will take a helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base, where he'll make private remarks inside a hangar. The Bushes then will fly to Midland, Texas, on the familiar blue-and-white presidential aircraft, although it will be called Special Air Mission 28000 instead of Air Force One because Bush will no longer be president.

Thousands of well-wishers are expected to greet the Bushes at Centennial Plaza in Midland — the same place he stopped on his way to the nation's capital for his own inauguration in 2001. While Bush was born in New Haven, Connecticut, he spent his childhood in Midland. He returned there as an adult in the 1970s and met the future first lady.

After the rally, the Bushes are flying to Waco, Texas, on their way to their 1,600-acre ranch (647 hectare) ranch in nearby Crawford.