What Dubya did next – a day in the new life of Ordinary George

It’s a long way from the goldfish bowl of the White House to a hardware store in Dallas. David Usborne reports on how the former US president came face to face with anonymity

Tuesday 24 February 2009 01:00

How fast they fade. Poor George W Bush decided that an unannounced visit to a Dallas hardware shop at the weekend would be a fun way to emerge from a month of post-presidential purdah and make a splash with his new neighbours. But the greeter who met him inside, a pensioner named Henry Long, didn’t recognise him.

It could be that Mr Bush looks smaller in real life than he does on TV. That, at least, was the observation yesterday of Andrea Bond, the marketing director for Elliott’s Hardware, who was there the moment the 43rd President of the United States pushed open the door on Saturday and asked Mr Long where he might find a torch and batteries. It probably didn’t help that Mr Bush was dressed not in a suit but, says Ms Bond, “sweatpants and a windbreaker”.

No one will fault Mr Bush for having kept a low profile – mostly at his Crawford ranch with his wife, Laura; it is just polite since someone else is in charge. But sweatpant obscurity is not something he can afford to contemplate. There are memoirs to sell – no luck so far – and lectures to give and he already has the serious handicap of having left office with some of the lowest approval ratings of any president in modern history.

The resurfacing of “W” began with the moving vans arriving at the Bush’s new, one-storey home in the fancy Preston Hollow neighbourhood of north-west Dallas on Friday. The house, a 1959 four-bedroom brick “ranch”, is at the end of a cul-de-sac called Daria Place that will shortly be shut off with heavy-duty security gates that the Bushes have agreed to pay for. A police checkpoint is in place to discourage gawkers.

A few “Welcome Home, George and Laura” signs have sprouted on local lawns. The area is close to where Mr Bush lived before he became the governor of Texas in 1994 and is handy for the Preston Centre, where he will have a temporary office for planning and fundraising for his presidential library.

Retirement is tough, particularly if your job has been as all-consuming as running a super power.

“From personal experience, it will take a while to re-acclimate,” said James Oberwetter, a fellow Texan and family friend who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Don Evans, Mr Bush’s commerce secretary, says the Bushes are making a good start. “They’re adjusting quickly to this new life, to being out of the White House, and out of the proverbial bubble,” he said.

Moving weekend went well enough. There was a dinner on Saturday night at the home of the Preston Hollow billionaire Harold Simmons and his wife, Annette, with live entertainment from the pianist Adrian King, who is a favourite among Dallas’s well-heeled. Mr King is British, originally from Peterborough, but reportedly managed a fine rendition of “Hail to the Chief”.

And maybe showing up like an “ordinary George” at Elliott’s was a smart move. Ms Bond insists that her staff had had no warning of the visit. “I heard my boss saying something about the Secret Service outside and I thought it was a joke. Then George Bush was coming in the door with a big smile on his face. He walked in the door and said he was looking for a job and laughed about it.”

This wasn’t an entirely spontaneous joke, however. It was a few weeks back when the owners of Elliott’s used an open letter to the former president offering him a job – in fact Mr Long’s job, as a greeter – in the Dallas newspapers as a fun way to promote itself. Someone on Mr Bush’s staff must have spotted it.

“We’re confident that your experience working in your own family business, as well as your people skills developed throughout years of meeting with foreign dignitaries would make you an excellent candidate for the position,” read the offer, signed by Kyle Walters, the president and chief executive of Elliott’s Hardware.

“Furthermore, like you, many of our greeters are retired from the corporate world, so we’re sure you’ll have no trouble making new friends.”

As other ex-presidents, not least Bill Clinton, have demonstrated, taking a job as a shop greeter should not be necessary. In general, former leaders of the free world earn a very good deal more than the $400,000 (£280,000) salary they were paid annually while in office.

Making sure he does at least as well as his predecessors is now Mr Bush’s first priority.

“Previous presidents have found it often a gold mine,” says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, of the move out of office.

Nor can he ignore the challenge of launching his presidential library. To be built on the grounds of the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, it will, according to the latest plans, be twice the size of his father’s presidential library and will include a policy centre that has already been informally tagged the “Freedom Institute”. Raising the estimated $300m will be left largely to Mr Bush working the telephones.

“He’s got two or three really important priorities on his mind,” said Mr Evans. “One, he has to earn a living, so he’ll be on the speaking tour. He’s into writing his book. Thirdly is the importance of building the presidential centre, particularly the institute. He’s making many phone calls and will continue to I would say almost on a daily basis.”

While Mr Bush is rumoured to have already started writing a memoir of his eight years on Pennsylvania Avenue, there has so far been no word of his having actually landed a publishing contract.

He may or may not have been galled to learn at the weekend of the deal struck by Condoleezza Rice with Crown Books, promising at least $2.5m for a trio of three memoirs.

His prospects on the lecture circuit may also be a little dodgy. Certainly, they would be brighter if he had not left Washington with such dismal popularity ratings – 25 per cent was his paltry score as Barack Obama was elected his successor. So far, only one “W” appearance has been announced: he will travel to Calgary, Alberta, for a luncheon speech on 17 March. It is a long way in real miles but not political ones. Calgary, like Dallas, is an oil and cow town with plenty of conservatives willing to pay big bucks to hear Mr Bush.

But it isn’t clear even in Dallas that feelings towards the Bush clan will be universally warm. “I do think the Bushes will be well received, very comfortable within their circle,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “But they cannot but know that the broader interpretation of the Bush presidency is very negative.”

Though the thrill of having the just-retired president exploring the torch aisle is still with her, even Ms Bond acknowledges that the Bush fan base in Dallas has its holes.

“I think some parts of Dallas are very, very excited and some parts less so,” she observes.

“He is a controversial figure whichever way you look at it. Some people love him and some people don’t. He is who he is.”

Where are they now? The Bush posse

Dick Cheney

Mr Cheney may not need to return to Halliburton, the energy contractor where he served as CEO until Mr Bush tapped him as vice president. He is set to receive a state pension of $132,451 a year, based on various government jobs, including VP and one-time congressman. That means a pot of $3.24m if he makes it to 84 years old. We now know Cheney spent the last three days of the Bush presidency lobbying his boss to give a full pardon to Lewis “Scooter” Libby, his former chief of staff found guilty in the Valerie Plame-CIA trial.

Condoleezza Rice

Ms Rice signed a three-memoir publishing contract with Crown Books at the weekend that promises her an estimated $2.5m. Aside from reflecting on her service to George Bush, Ms Rice will also use one volume to trace her family history and her own rise from relative poverty in Mississippi to becoming the first black woman to reach such high office. She is also expected to return to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University where she will resume her pre-Bush career as a political science professor.

Hank Paulson

With no evidence at all that his stewardship of the economy and Wall Street in the last few months of the Bush administration did anything but worsen the crisis, you might think the former Goldman Sachs CEO would get as far away from Washington as possible. But Paulson is staying put, hanging his hat – for the time being at least – at the prestigious Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. What Mr Paulson will teach there exactly is not yet clear. He is officially described as a “distinguished visiting scholar”.

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