Full Circle: Crawford Turns Its Back on Lame-Duck President Bush
CRAWFORD, Texas - On a sunny Texan morning four good ol'boys in baseball caps and Stetsons are playing dominoes in a back room of the Masonic Lodge, an old brick edifice in the two blocks of ramshackle buildings that constitute downtown Crawford.
As they slap down their tiles they talk of President Bush, whose 1,583-acre (641-hectare) ranch lies seven miles out of town. "He ain't much of a President," drawls Bill Holmes. "He's as good as any," retorts Joel Weber.
"He's bin loaded down every time he's tried to do somethin' good," argues Marvin Luedeker.
"I know the war was tough and it ain't over yet, but as far as terrorists go we ain't had any attacks over here," Raymond Whitney concludes.
In this tiny community of 705 deeply conservative, teetotal, God-fearing souls, Mr Bush has considerably more support than he has in the country at large, as his eight-year presidency enters its twilight days. Polls suggest that he is the most unpopular president of modern times. He is almost openly repudiated by John McCain, the Republican nominee to succeed him. Republican congressional candidates invite him to private fundraisers, but certainly not to campaign rallies.
Mr Bush's fall from favour is apparent in other ways in his adopted home town on the edge of Texas hill country where he used to burnish his image by chopping wood and cutting brush. Now the lamest of lame duck presidents, he is far from the draw he was.
In the early years of his presidency he brought a string of world leaders - 16 in all - to Crawford. Here Tony Blair allegedly signed up to the invasion of Iraq and President Putin of Russia answered schoolchildren's questions.
The locals all flaunt photographs of themselves consorting with some president, prince, or grinning, burger-eating prime minister who had dropped by the Coffee Station.
Whenever Mr Bush was in residence (he has visited 75 times since taking office) helicopters would circle overhead, the town would fill with journalists, and gawkers' vehicles stretched bumper to bumper all the way out to his ranch on Chapel Prairie Road even though it is entirely hidden by trees.
Protesters came too. Thousands of Falun Gong activists demonstrated against China's then President Jiang Zemin. Ten thousand demonstrators supported Cindy Sheehan, a bereaved mother, in her stand against the Iraq war. On one occasion Greenpeace supporters scaled Crawford's water tower to hang a "Bush the Toxic Texan" banner.
Today, by contrast, there is scarcely a tourist - let alone a protester - to be seen and Main Street, with its single blinking traffic light, is largely deserted except for the odd truck and occasional goods train rumbling down the railroad line that splits the town in two.
Of the seven gift shops that sold "Western White House" mugs, T-shirts, fridge magnets and golf balls, three have gone bust, only two still open regularly and one has a sale on, while the cardboard cut-outs of Mr Bush have been largely relegated to backrooms.
Half of Main Street's buildings are now locked up and vacant.
"When it all started all of these were empty," Marilyn Judy, a teacher who doubles as president of the Chamber of Commerce, said as she surveyed the buildings. "Now they're returning to where they were. It's kinda gone full circle ... It's been an adventure and now it's over." Keith Lynch, 70, a fourth-generation rancher with 1,000 acres close to Mr Bush's ranch, recalled that during the President's first term any number of rich, upwardly mobile Texans would arrive unannounced and offer to buy his land for several times its market value. That changed as Mr Bush's ratings plunged. "The bottom fell out in the second year of his second term," says Mr Lynch, who never receives such offers now.
In the beginning, Crawford enthusiastically promoted its presidential links, but today it scarcely makes the effort. A "Bush Country" banner that hung from the town's grain silos has not been replaced since it blew down last year. A mural on the Masonic Lodge that declared Crawford to be "Home of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush" has been removed at the Masons' request. The "Welcome to Crawford" signs beside the roads into the town display faded pictures of a very young-looking First Couple. The Historical Society, set up to satisfy tourists' curiosity about the town, has folded, and Crawford appears to promote the Pirates - its high school football team - as much as the President.
What remains are a few poignant reminders of the tumultuous events of recent years. There is Camp Casey, the long-abandoned five-acre plot that Ms Sheehan bought for her protest in 2005 - a few symbolic wooden crosses stand in the overgrown grass and a large sign proclaims "Respect the Dead, Heal the Wounded, End the War". In a former barber's shop on Main Street, closed except at weekends, there is Fort Qualls - a storefront set up by the father of a marine killed in Iraq to counter Ms Sheehan's anti-war protests. Most locals still loyally voice support for Mr Bush, but his critics feel increasingly emboldened.
"It's the worst presidency of my lifetime. He's been wrong on education, wrong on the war, wrong on the economy, wrong on everything," declared Janie Matthews, a nurse, as she waited to have her hair done at the Great Shapes beauty shop. She used to keep quiet, she said, but felt able to speak out now that Mr Bush's presidency is almost over.
What unites the town is relief that it is finally regaining its quiet country rhythms after its long and increasingly fraught time in the global spotlight.
"It's been hell for eight years. You can't imagine," said Mr Lynch, the rancher, who has endured low-flying helicopters terrifying his cattle, tourists and protesters defiling his property, and the President's security chiefs refusing to let a mobile phone company erect a tower on his land for which he would have received $180,000 over 25 years - money earmarked for his daughter's cancer treatment.
The Bushes are expected to live 120 miles away in Dallas when they leave the White House. When they visit the ranch they will bring fewer secret service agents, fewer gawkers and few, if any, journalists. Mr Bush may also begin acting like a true local, not a politician. "A man who cuts cedar in 100 degrees in the summertime in Texas - there's something wrong with his brain," says Mr Lynch. "It's for the cameras only."