Home on the Range The Bush ranch is the way he likes to see himself - rugged and thoroughly Texan

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George Bush steps from one wet rock up onto another. "It gets even better over here," he promises, poking a boot into the mud for balance. We're climbing on a line of small boulders that form a joint down the middle of a gully as if they'd been rolled there like dice. "I'm gonna put a wooden walkway of some kind in here," he says, dodging a vine. Bush can look as if he's clanging around in a blue suit, but he doesn't look lost on the ranch in the Marlboro Man getup: worn black jeans, a blue work shirt and a mustard-colored barn jacket with stains and a corduroy collar. The breast reads: George W. Bush, governor.

Most politicians try to impress people by showing how smart, how engaged and how busy they are. Bush does the opposite. He likes to be underestimated, likes to pretend you're telling him something he didn't already know. And he likes to be seen as unflappable. No problem is too tough that it can't be licked with a little of the common sense that rules on his 1,600-acre property in Crawford, Texas. If that means people think he's not quite as clever as all these city folks he has working for him, all the better.

So part of this outing at the darkest moment of the 36-day postelection battle with Al Gore is almost a country-boy ruse. Of course he wants us to see him here. This ranch, which he bought just a year ago, is a rich Texas symbol of achievement - what kids from the Midland dream of having. And it wasn't handed down. That ranch is all that he sees himself to be: rugged, real and thoroughly Texan. But Bush's persona at the ranch is also more than an act. He seems at peace in this place where he knows each tree and hollow.

A secret service agent slips as he tries to keep up. Bush's wife Laura stopped following a while ago, but her husband yells out anyway, "Be careful, Bushie." She calls him by the same nickname. "We're going to clear over there this afternoon," he says, pointing to a thicket of spindly cedar. Along the way he tries to stoke the suspense without giving the secret away. Bush wants us to discover whatever it is he's leading us to the way he did. "Wait till you see this," he breathes out. The seam we've been following winds us around an outcropping of rock, and suddenly we're at the base of a limestone cavity. It rises up 60 ft., the color of butter-pecan ice cream, shaped as if the scoop has just scored it. Down the middle falls a modest line of water. Somehow the splash can only now be heard as we stand next to its blue-green pool. Bush calls this the amphitheater.

"I took Jenna out here," says Bush of one of his twin daughters. "Because when we bought the ranch she was like, 'Why?'" Bush knows a lot of others have been wondering the same thing. In photo ops the only part of the Crawford ranch the world can see makes it look like one of those dry, generic planets that are always beamed down to on Star Trek. This place in central Texas, just 23 miles southwest of Waco, is Bush's sanctuary. Nearly every weekend of the campaign he came here; he prepared for debates in its two-room cottage, and he has spent the major part of the postelection period out in its dusty acres, away from the fishbowl of the Texas Governor's Mansion. Why does he come here? What does he do here?

I have driven the two hours from Austin to find out. And I have come at a bad time. The day before, the Florida Supreme Court resuscitated Gore by calling for a hand recount of the state's disputed ballots. They've given him votes too, so Bush's lead has shrivled up to 154. The new recount has already begun when I arrive. The Governor has asked the Supreme Court to stop it. If it doesn't act in time, Gore could get ahead, changing the dynamic in an instant and forever. Aides are the most worried they have been all campaign long that they could lose. The uncertainty should be driving Bush nuts - not just because it would irk any normal human, but also because he can be quite a fidget. Even when he is standing over food laid out for lunch, he starts to agitate. "Let's eat. Let's eat," he says. "Let's get after it." Interrupt him at a press conference, and he can't stop his face from torquing in irritation. Advisers are lucky to get a few minutes of uninterrupted briefing before he wedges in with a question.

So when I pull up outside his modest cottage, I'm expecting that I won't get much more than a high five. "Sorry, presidency may be slipping away," I can imagine him saying. "You won't mind showing yourself out will you?" Why on this of all days would he want someone watching everything he does, drawing conclusions from what's on his walls, picking apart his syntax? Yet Bush and his wife Laura seem delighted to see me as they stand at the edge of their concrete driveway. He looks surprisingly relaxed, considering he spent the two-hour drive from Austin that morning being briefed on the recount situation in Florida. When he arrived, he told his advisers, "I'll be at the ranch. Let me know."

We'll see how long he holds before he calls for an update. Bush takes a white baseball cap off the metal fence post at the tip of his lawn where it has been resting and carries it inside. The morning is crisp and sunny, and the sky is filled with specific clouds. We head out for the tour of the homestead. "Get a chance to practice my drivin'," says Bush, sliding the key ring up over his Chevy Suburban's antenna where he has speared it. He drives with one hand and rests his other arm out the window, as he pulls up to the first gate. "You seen that stag come by here?" he asks of the Secret Service agent. A male deer has slipped through the extra high fences of a nearby exotic-game farm and found its way among the property's gently lolling cows. Well, most of them are lolling anyway; a bull a few yards away has picked this moment to mate. "Putting on a show," Bush murmurs out of the side of his mouth. Then the stag shows up. It's a taxidermist's dream, with massive forelegs and a rack that should need cantilevering. "He's going to jump the fence," says Bush, and then, on cue, the stag easily does just that, loping toward the southern portion of the property.

Ranger George knows every inch of his acreage. His arm shoots out to point at the different kinds of oaks, the elm and the hackberry. There's an overwhelming brownness as you look out over large portions of his land, which have the texture of a worn brush. He stops the truck to show us a rare cottonwood and make sure we can all see the white-tailed deer hiding in the trees. "Motts are what they call those groupings of oaks," notes Bush. He catalogs every stream crossing, every canyon and the precise number of cows, bulls and calves that he lets graze on his land. There's Ophelia, the gray Texas Longhorn his staff gave him as a present. Some of the gray oak trees look like old villagers, wrinkled and stooped, as if they have fought hard for every inch of growth.

His descriptions have none of those elongated pronunciations he's prone to; he serves up none of the verbal jambalaya he's known for on the stump. His accent has no thickener the way it might if he were trying to give the Disney version of the tour. And he doesn't go the other way either, trotting out 10 words like sylvan or making wide detours to talk about Teddy Roosevelt. His voice is easy. Meanwhile, the recount continues.

But it's cedar that is vexing him now, the clotting underbrush that chokes the majestic old oak and elm hardwoods. "When it is cleared, you'll have the full effect of the amphitheater," he says, sweeping his hand across the long ridge of limestone that leads to the waterfall. "I'm making the case for my cedar-eradication project," he says, pointing out yet another patch of the annoyance long after he needs to make the case.

It is a truth about Bush that he prefers to guide by the big picture and the bottom line. While Gore enjoyed playing at the molecular level, Bush is annoyed by it. Every aide tells you this is the key to understanding his leadership approach. And it is the way to understand how he rules the ranch too. The stuff has to be cleared to get the broader view, cleared so that you can see from the land on top of his property down into the greener valley. We stop at an overlook he has just thinned out so that he can show Laura. Each night they take a walk before sunset; now they will have a clean lookout down to the Rainey Creek, more than 100 ft. below. Bush has torched his conifer hackings all over the ranch, leaving black burn circles that look as if there's been fireworks testing. Once the brush is gone, he's got plans: wildflowers over there and maybe a feeder to attract some wildlife. Laura is growing a patch of native grasses. Bush is quick to point out, though, that more than enough cedar has been left for the golden-cheek warbler and the black-capped vireo, which use its bark for their nests.

Chopping cedar is his ultimate escape. When he gets on one of his John Deere "Gators," a hybrid golf cart-tractor, and heads off into the brush, it's not unlike those jaunts his father used to take in the speedboat up at Kennebunkport. "It does just all fall away," says Bush, stepping under a canopy of trees. "I could give a damn about the Supreme Court. Well, of course I do care, but you forget." There's a little defiance and exasperation in his voice. He has stopped the truck this time to show off the "cathedral," a column of limestone steps that were carved by water but look handmade. A nearly perfect arch of branches roofs the long aisle. "I told my daughter, 'This is where the audience will sit,'" says Bush about some imaginary wedding in Jenna's future. "The audience will stand there. You and I will stand here, and the preacher will stand here." A gentle slip of water rolls over the steps and his cowboy boots. "Isn't it spectacular?" he says. "You can imagine when all these trees are budded out in the spring, it's pretty dramatic. The thing about this in here is that it's hard to believe you're in Texas."

Bush doesn't needle his visitors as they follow him through every hollow and over each slippery rock. He would in other settings, where his humor is often less witty than it is withering. But here there are no macho frat-boy tests. He seems eager to help people see what he finds so particular about this place. But in one case, he can't resist having a little fun anyway. "Can you drink this?" asks a guest reaching down to the water. "Sure," says Bush, watching the fellow taking a handful to his mouth. "Except for the cow s___." The spit-take follows in perfect order.

The two-hour tour of the grounds ends at the new house the Bushes have been building. Made of limestone from Lampasas, Texas, less than a two-hour drive from here, it has long rectangular bricks of a dusty putty color with the texture of little mountain ranges. Designed to wind around a series of old live oaks, the compound has an old oak spread out over the front as its focal point. The single-level home's 10,000 sq. ft. are nearly finished, but the high-ceiling rooms take up only a third of that space. The limestone porch takes up the rest, circling the house like a moat.

The builders are all from a religious community in Elm Mott, Texas. The women applying the last touches to the cabinetry are dressed in full-length cotton dresses with simple patterns. "They have the most lovely countenances," says Bush, stepping from the driver's seat. As he tours past the well-turned joints and solid doors they have carved and walks into a room, the dozen or so workers there break out in smiles. A carpenter he calls by name is so excited he does a little hop.

"That's the whining pool," he says, pointing to the nearly finished swimming pool, which was built as an inducement to his teenage daughters. "If you whine loudly enough, you get a pool." He continues, stopping at the porch outside the living room. "As you walk around the house, you can take advantage of the different vistas." Many of the 19 wooden chairs being stored in the garage will be placed here for the guests who come nearly every weekend. A 10-acre man-made pond built and stocked with 5,000 bass has also been designed around the oak trees, and one oak sits at the tip of a little peninsula. The view looks like a national park, and Bush, the grounds keeper in chief, leaves no detail unsmoothed. He tells of how irked he was by a dead tree's breaking the water's surface, how he took off in his bass-fishing boat, a gift from his uncle William T. Bush, wielding a chainsaw. "I was out there in Uncle Buck's bass-fishing buggy, and the wind was blowing from the north, and I was standing there, nearly got blown over," he remembers. The mission was unsuccessful.

Until the construction is completed, the First Family is staying in the property's original cottage. The sage exterior color is repeated inside, where the rooms are plain. The front door opens into a sitting room with a folk-art three-dimensional rendering of the White House jutting out from the back wall. Its thick, bulky columns look as if they're made of toilet-paper cardboard. Other walls have a few touches of humor: a framed likeness of President Bush dressed as an oil sheik greets you as you walk out of the bathroom, and a set of three Chinese revolutionary posters exalt Chairman Mao. The bookshelves are in the dining room, packed with baseball tomes, novels (including non-Republican writers like Gore Vidal and Nora Ephron) and some histories. There are two televisions, one with rabbit ears. There's no cable, but the cia did install a secure phone recently.

When we reach the kitchen, lunch is already out on the center counter. "What is it you tracked in here?" says Bush to Spot, the spaniel who has left prints all over the dark hardwood floor of the kitchen. He moves quickly for the heart-shaped mop to clean up the mess while Laura slices the tomatoes for lunch. Our host doesn't check in with Austin or Tallahassee. Gore could easily have taken the lead in the hand count by now, but Bush doesn't look distracted. The meal is simple: tuna salad with eggs, sliced tomatoes and a vegetable tortilla soup. The Governor needs more fuel for his cedar chopping later in the day, so he fixes himself one of his favorite sandwiches, peanut butter and honey. But no soup for him. He says he doesn't like it. At the worn maroon dining table, the conversation changes from the landscape of his ranch to that of his possible new presidential future. He is more curious about things than he appears in public, and talk ranges from Chad (in Africa) to the kind of rampant sucking up that White House staff members engage in when you're President. He has seen from his father's days how people censor themselves once they cross that Oval Office threshold, squashing their formerly strong opinions. When he talks politics, he focuses less on ideology than on the particular power relationships, individual motivations and how they can be used to get things accomplished. The meal ends with chocolate-chip cookies and milk.

In a short car ride before I leave, he laughs off a question about pardoning Clinton, instead telling a story. "When Laura and I were at the Cardinal O'Connor funeral, and it came time for the handshakes of peace S? I see this huge hand reaching across five bodies, and it's Clinton, and he roars, 'Peace, Governor!'" Bush's Clinton accent is thick like pudding. He, like the rest of America, loves to do the Clinton voice. His cell phone rings. He fishes into the cavity below the radio and finds it. After a minute or so he says, "That's great news. Terrific." The Supreme Court has just halted the count.

Bush steps out of the car to finish the conversation in private, looking over the plants growing at the edge of the house. "That is good news," he says, showing only the slightest new enthusiasm after he rings off the phone. As I stand to leave, he starts playing fetch with Spot. Using a purple tennis racquet, he hits a tennis ball, brown from slobber. If I hadn't been there maybe he'd be on those phones, pacing, torturing the TV's rabbit ears to get clearer reception. But instead he starts talking about Yale. "I must admit that I thought some of them thought those of us from the South didn't get it," he says, swatting the ball. "That was just fine with me." Thwack goes the racquet. He says he's going to go clear the cedar, and I leave. He walks inside, and calls Jim Baker.