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Saturday, December 31, 2005

Clearing The Ranchette

by digby

This is the wierdest damned article I've read in ages. I knew that Junior did the brush clearing thing, but I assumed that he did it for photo-op purposes. It turns out that he's actually obsessed with it.

He's obsessed with brush clearing.

On most of the 365 days he has enjoyed at his secluded ranch here, President Bush's idea of paradise is to hop in his white Ford pickup truck in jeans and work boots, drive to a stand of cedars, and whack the trees to the ground.

If the soil is moist enough, he will light a match and burn the wood. If it is parched, as it is across Texas now, the wood will sit in piles scattered over the 1,600-acre spread until it is safe for a ranch hand to torch -- or until the president can come home and do the honors himself.

President Bush, shown clearing cedar at his Crawford, Tex., ranch in 2002, has not lost his enthusiasm for the task during recent trips to what aides call the Western White House.

Sometimes this activity is the only official news to come out of what aides call the Western White House. For five straight days since Monday, when Bush retreated to the ranch for his Christmas sojourn, a spokesman has announced that the president, in between intelligence briefings, calls to advisers and bicycling, has spent much of his day clearing brush.

This might strike many Washingtonians as a curious pastime. It does burn a lot of calories. But brush clearing is dusty, it is exhausting (the president goes at it in 100 degree-plus heat), and it is earsplitting, requiring earplugs to dull the chain saw's buzz.

For Bush, who is known to spend early-morning hours hacking at unwanted mesquite, cocklebur weeds, hanging limbs and underbrush only to go back for more after lunch, it borders on obsession.

The president of the United States likes to spend his suburban ranchette vacation killing time cutting stuff down with a chainsaw and then torching it. Holy shit. Does it get any more symbolic than that?

(It reminds me of the tales his pals told about his childhood, stuffing frogs with firecrackers and blowing them up.)

Certainly the 1,583 acres of rugged canyons and rocky hillsides, creeks and pasture land on Prairie Chapel Ranch contain a lot of brush. Bush, a creature of habit, is not in danger of finishing the job. The Bush ranch, however, is not a working ranch. The president has kept only a handful of cattle on the property since Kenneth Engelbrecht, who sold him the former hog farm six years ago, stopped leasing back some pasture land that supported a herd of cows.


Real ranchers, who need to clear a whole lot of brush for pasture land, either hire someone to spray herbicides from the air or run an excavator through it. They tend to tend cattle, several said.

Bush, by contrast, practices a selective, do-it-yourself sculpting to enhance his enjoyment of his property, local experts say. He will clear underbrush to preserve beautiful live oaks and pecan trees, or to prepare the 50 acres where Laura Bush is cultivating native grasses, or to help carve nature trails through the ranch's many canyons.

"It's a selective control of the brush," said Sam Middleton, owner of a West Texas ranch brokerage, who added that this enhances a ranch's value.

Then again, there will be times when the president drives around his property and "will see a stand of cedar trees and say 'Let's clear those,' " said Joseph Hagin, Bush's deputy chief of staff, who has been cutting brush with his boss all week. They do not talk a lot of policy over the sound of their chain saws, he said.

You can't compare this to his bicycling or running obsessions, because those have a certain meditative yet thrilling physical challenge. This is something else entirely. This is the the only thing he can think of to do when he isn't running or biking. Mindless, loud, repetitive manual labor. It's like obsessively jackhammering sidewalks for fun.

A reader wrote me an e-mail asking me what conclusions I had come to about Bush after all this time. Is he evil? Is he stupid? Is he a religious fanatic, a spoiled frat boy, what?

I haven't actually changed my mind from the first impression I had of him when he said "Christ. He changed my life" in answer to the debate question about favorite political philosophers. He's simple but well-trained. And he hasn't changed. The person we have been watching for the last five years is the same inarticulate, testy, arrogant and shallow, rich mediocrity he was when he took office.

He's also as laughably robotic and unresponsive as ever. (Only Scott McClellan is less spontaneous.) But the Republicans discovered that if the president doesn't submit himself to spontaneous situations and is disciplined in his message, people will get used to it after a while and stop expecting him to actually answer questions. This was new. Reagan wasn't a genius, but he understood the public after a lifetime of training in what they wanted from a celebrity. He also had a good sense of humor and great timing. He was very capable of dealing with the press. Clinton was a master of detail who could riff on anything. His intellect and his obvious enjoyment in governing prepared him to answer any question that was thrown at him. Bush senior was bumbling but professional. He responded.

Junior simply doesn't engage unless he is forced to, seeing encounters with the press as nothing more than an oppportunity to get out the message of the day and run out the clock. He is a living stone wall who speaks in strange parables and cliches and sometimes just pure gibberish. He falters, he stammers, he looks uncomforatble and weak. Yet he was until fairly recently perceived by most to be a strong and resolute leader. (The post 9/11 delusion was some powerful mojo.)

I know that it's not considered wise to "misunderestimate" him and I've heard many people say that he's got political acumen that we elitist nerds just don't get. I don't believe it. I know what I see. The man has been in over his head since the day he entered the presidential race and he's still in over his head. 9/11 got him reelected in 2004, but he and his administration have been hanging on by their fingernails since the day they took office. They wear suits and ties and say sir and ma'm, but it's all to cover for the fact that they had no idea how to govern and by now it's clear they never will.

I see a man who is barely holding back his panic; a man who clings to his pathetic "war president" image like a talisman. He looks confused and hurt by the criticism he's receiving from people who he thought bought into the program and reportedly knows on some level that he's been duped by his advisors. He has no choice but to keep barreling along pretending that he knows what he's doing. He barks at underlings and pretends to be in charge even as he gets more and more confused. He's distanced from his father, the one person everyone thought could help guide this callow airhead if the shit came down. He trusts no one now.

So he clears brush like a madman everytime he gets the chance, hiding behind his Oakley's, blessedly unable to hear anything over the sound of chainsaws ---- maybe even the voices inside his head that remind him that he's still got three more years of this horrible responsibility he knows he cannot handle.