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Crawford, Texas:  President Bush's Home Away from Washington - 2002-08-15

President Bush is a New Englander by birth, born of privilege in the state of Connecticut, and educated at the exclusive northeastern universities, Yale and Harvard. But there is no mistaking the twang in his voice, and the gleam in his eye when he talks of Texas. He spent his childhood there, and returned as an adult to marry, build a business and enter politics. He said he feels privileged to spend his days in the White House. But every chance he gets he returns to a ranch at the end of a country road, on the edge of a one-stoplight town.

In a tiny, dusty town in central Texas, the President of the United States has found a home.

"I'm going to head on home. I've changed addresses, from Washington to Crawford," Mr. Bush told reporters. He refers to the White House as "the people's house." To George W. Bush, "home" is a plot of land on the outskirts of Crawford, population 705.

Freight trains rush through Crawford, past the one traffic light and the granary. The town sits like a speck of dust on a Texas map, a place where a tractor and a pick-up truck on a country road constitute a traffic jam.

There's a two block downtown with a barber shop, two gas stations and a few shops selling souvenirs. "Look around our town," Bill Sparkman said. He is the local barber, volunteer fireman and unofficial tour guide. "That right there used to be the grocery store. The little tin building used to be our city jail. The barber shop when I was a little boy was right there where city hall is at," he explained.

He moves a bit slowly in the heat, his head covered with a firefighter's cap against the sun.

He has lived in Crawford all his life, started barbering with his father 41 years ago and seems a bit bemused by his famous neighbor.

"I've got to tell you one day he was supposed to come down here in a motorcade from Waco and people were running around the streets looking for him. I said, 'hey, he flew over.' 'Nah, he didn't, he's coming in a motorcade', they said. And it got dark and everybody left. I tried to tell them and they wouldn't listen," Mr. Sparkman said.

The local economy is a bit better since the president moved to Crawford. A bank is under construction where the old feed store used to be and a few new shops have opened selling presidential t-shirts and Christmas ornaments with the words "Western White House" on the front.

There are still some boarded up buildings and the sidewalks seem to be crumbling in places. In many ways, Crawford seems unchanged.

"There is no plastic here. There are no neon lights. That is why I love it," Norma Nelson-Crow said. She grew up on a local farm. She now owns a gift shop with a replica of the president by the front door.

"What you see is what you get. And I think that attracted him to this area," she said. If you look closely, you see the president's face soften a bit when he returns to Crawford. There is a slight cowboy's bounce to his walk, and he looks like a man who is comfortable with his surroundings.

"This part of the state represents the independent-minded nature of Texans. It represents the hard-working Texans, people who have great values, faith and family," president Bush said.

"There is a lot that you gain from a small town that remains with you for the rest of your life. We were hard workers. We are hard workers here in this little farming community," Norma Nelson-Crow said.

But there is another side to small town life, says Norma Nelson Crow. "Not only the work ethic, but people caring for each other. I think we were all conditioned to take care of others before we would take care of ourselves," she said.

These are the traits the president mentions time and time again, and perhaps it is no surprise that he gravitates from time to time to a place where they seem to be in abundance. The key to Crawford, said Bill Sparkman, is the people.

"I like Crawford because I grew up here. It hasn't much changed. I like the people and everything like that. I think that is one reason the president lives around here," Mr. Sparkman said.

There is another draw that brings the president back. As you drive down the narrow road to the front gate of his Prairie Chapel Ranch, you see flat prairie. But beyond the house and the pastures lies a virtual nature reserve of water, woodland and wild animals

"The property is quite beautiful. I mean, it is breathtaking," Valerie Duty said. She remembers the sights on the Bush ranch with the eye of a professional photographer. She has spent most of her life in Crawford and visited the property many times in the years before the president bought the place in 1999. "I have great memories of the Christmases down at the bottom land, down along the creek. And every Christmas there was a big huge picnic and everyone was invited right down there on his property," Ms. Duty said.

She said it is easy to get lost in the beauty of the ranch - particularly the back land with its waterfall, canyons and trails.

"And it is absolutely gorgeous. It is his way of going back and coming back to nature and coming back to reality because you think about the pressures he has on him, especially now. And it's his way of getting back with God," she said.

This is the place where the president can put the pressures of Washington behind. Crawford brings him tranquility. He brings Crawford the world.

"I bet a lot of people here, particularly the older folks, never dreamt that an American president would bring a Russian president to Crawford, Texas," Mr. Bush said.

Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to visit the Bush ranch. The town was invited to meet him last November at the local high school, where the two presidents took questions from students.

One student asked Mr. Bush, "I was wondering if you've come to a conclusion about whether or not to deploy a national missile defense system?"

"Are you with the national press corps?" Mr. Bush asked as the crowd laughed. Norma Nelson Crow was in the audience that day. She said she is now keeping a journal where she chronicles Crawford's moment in history.

"This is a moment of history that will never come again for Crawford, this moment when our president is in office. And I am trying to keep a journal. I am not really good at this. But I want my grandchildren, my great-great grandchildren to have something to refer to after I am long gone. That this was a moment in time of history in Crawford," she said.

She sits in a rocking chair in her shop, surrounded by neatly folded t-shirts, decorated coffee mugs and the faint smell of potpourri and cookies. Outside, Bill Sparkman points out the town highlights to a visitor. He rubs his beard and then smiles as he looks down the main street, first in one direction, then the other.

"I go places now and I never have to tell people where I am from. I tell em I'm from Crawford - oh yeh, we know where that is at!" Mr. Sparkman said.