Bush’s War on the Underbrush
The Washington Post devotes page three treatment to President Bush’s passion for brush cutting at his Texas ranch.
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.
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.
Presidential historian Robert Dallek said: “This is part of his macho image. Obviously this is nothing Bush has to do. He’s the son of a rich man who doesn’t have to spend his time cutting underbrush.” But some of Bush’s neighbors in the Crawford area said they understand his pleasure — even if he doesn’t have to do it. “We do it because we have to,” said Zach Arias, who with his wife raises cows on 400 acres about 20 miles from town. “But afterwards, you kind of go, ‘Wow. I feel good about what I did today.’ ” White House counselor Dan Bartlett explained it this way: “It’s therapeutic for him, I guess. There’s very few things he gets to do hands on.”
Clearing brush is a lot like weeding the yard, although on a real ranch it is an economic necessity. In central Texas, cedar and mesquite trees are invaders competing for moisture with grass, gobbling water from the soil and hoarding rain and sunlight on their branches. With his livestock’s food supply at stake, a farmer could live or die on how well his brush is cleared. Local agronomists say brush control has been a part of rural Texas since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, when the botanical bandits spread across the arid soil. “It’s pretty important,” said Charles E. Gilliland, a research economist with the Texas A&M University’s Real Estate Center. “If you don’t watch out, it just kind of takes over.”
As much as it is a metaphor for presidential vigor, Bush’s preoccupation with wielding his chain saw has become fodder for bloggers and other critics who complain that he is isolated and disengaged. “He shouldn’t have time to be clearing brush,” said Kay Lucas, a grandmother and antiwar activist who drives 25 miles a day to care for the Crawford Peace House, a gathering spot for Cindy Sheehan and her protest against the war.
That Bush has spent roughly a fifth of his presidency at the Western White House is, I suppose, somewhat remarkable. Unlike Lucas, though, I don’t begrudge him the time.
Most of the president’s defenders will emphasize the fact that, in the age of instant communication, he can do his job anywhere and that he is in meetings constantly even in Crawford. Those things are no doubt true. But even if Bush is taking most of his time at the ranch for himself, that’s a very good thing. Because their work is so mentally taxing, leaders need a lot of down time. Too few take it, thinking themselves indispensible. Stephen Covey deems “Balanced Self-Renewal” one of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
Suppose you came upon someone in the woods working to saw down a tree. They are exhausted from working for hours. You suggest they take a break to sharpen the saw. They might reply, ” I didn’t have time to sharpen the saw, I’m busy sawing!”
Habit 7 is taking the time to sharpen the saw. By renewing the four dimensions of your nature – physical, spiritual, mental and social/emotional, you can work more quickly and effortlessly. To do this, we must be proactive. This is a Quadrant II (important, not urgent) activity that must be acted on. It’s at the center of our Circle of Influence, so we must do it for ourselves.
Sharpening the Saw is “the seventh habit that makes all the other six last.”
While cutting brush isn’t my idea of relaxation, a lot of people find that sort of hands-on work very therapeutic. While there’s surely some stagecraft to making sure that Bush is photographed in cowboy duds doing manly work, I get the sense that he truly enjoys it.