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.

Down on the Ranch, President Wages War on the Underbrush

Photo 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. (By Eric Draper -- White House) 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.

FILED UNDER: General, US Politics, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. odograph says:

    I actually buy mesquite in order to burn it.

  2. DaveD says:

    Surely Cindy Sheehan could at least be grateful for the more pleasing natural vista afforded her in Crawford compared to that she would have spending even more time outside the White House.

  3. Just Me says:

    While my idea of relaxation is more along the lines of a hot bath and a good book, I can understand work as relaxation. My dad loved to mow the lawn, and almost every day after he got home from work he would head out and mow a portion of large lawn-he always used a push mower, although now most people with a yard the size of ours would purchase a riding mower. It was his way to decompress after a day at work.

  4. JKB says:

    I suppose everyone would be happier if President Bush played golf. It appears the problem is that he is doing work normally done by those in less exalted positions. Is a President who does manual labor less appealing than one who chases a ball across a well manicured field?

    It is clear that those who complain are unfamiliar with the burdens of leadership. The President is faced daily with a multitude of problems that he can only influence usually over a long period of time Many unsolvable. He is making decisions today whose ultimate outcome will not be known during his Presidency. This is the burden of leadership. Making decisions on the distant future wears at you. To recharge, the President engages in a task that simple but requires focus (unfocused use of a chainsaw can lead to loss of limbs), is achievable and provides immediate results. The focus on a simplified task allows the President to recharge his mental faculties to better address the problems of leadership, which return from his subconscious once the task is done. Note he doesn’t get to forget the problems only distract himself, plus it is the time in the subconscious where many problems are solved.

  5. Don Surber says:

    I dunno. He seems kinda fake — trying to outdo Reagan. Laura called him a windshield cowboy. He should do his own thing and leave the brush alone

  6. anjin-san says:

    Guess its how he pretends he is some sort of kindred spirit of President Reagan’s…

  7. Anderson says:

    What JKB said. Gladstone used to split logs, IIRC.

    I enjoy mowing the yard for the same reason. Lawsuits seem to linger forever, but when you mow the yard, the grass was TALL and now it is SHORT. For a while.

  8. Dodd says:

    “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.

    Lucas clearly has too much time on her own hands. if only she was doing something as productive as clearing brush.

  9. joated says:

    I like to mow the lawn (2+ acres with a gas powered push mower). It’s physical, sort of mindless (lets me think about all kinds of things) and provides a sense of accomplishment when I can look over the grass and see something has been done–now.

    Between cuttings, it’s cutting firewood. Felling trees, splitting and stacking. Same thing.

    Third task is to use the brush-hog to clear trails in the old pasture.

    I think the people most disturbed by the President’s activity are those who think you must play golf, or jog or it’s not exercise. Those who don’t appreciate physical labor at all. It can be far, far more than just “work.”

  10. djneylon says:

    I have often found cooking meals to be relaxing. A few years back another man and I were talking after church one Sunday about how we both found cooking relaxing. A woman standing nearby thought we were goofy. When we asked her what she did that was relaxing, her reply was mowing the lawn. Doing work you don’t have to do can be a wonderful restorative.

  11. M. Murcek says:

    I for one am glad that in 2001, President Bush returned relaxed and refreshed from doing what he likes to do at Crawford to face the monumental task that America got dealt on 9/11.

    People who think it’s fake (to go to Crawford and do what ranchers have to do) should ask themselves if they can honestly say they’ve been authentic and sincere 100% of the time. Hint: Anyone who answers “yes” is lying…

  12. DC Loser says:

    I do my best thinking about all kinds of things when I mow the lawn. It’s very relaxing and it’s about the only time I have to myself at home.

  13. yetanotherjohn says:

    If I had to deal with the press, I suspect some time with a chainsaw would be theraputic. As far as trying to “out Reagan Reagan”, I don’t hear of W making a big PR event out of this (contrast Kerry and his sports). The analogy to golf is a good one. The fact that after several hours Bush has accomplished something that needed doing compared to gold strikes me as a more fortunate hobby. Not that there is anything wrong with golf, but getting a two-fer (relaxation and needed work done) seems like a good thing to me.

  14. Anderson says:

    An admirably bipartisan consensus about Bush’s brush-clearing.

    It’s just that some of us are thinking that should be his day job.

  15. Dodd says:

    60 million of your countrymen disagreed. Get over it.

  16. paul says:

    But if he gets another “Bin Lasen determined to strike in US” briefing, will he read it this time ? Or cut brush…

  17. Gary Farber says:

    I thought Lisa Rein’s piece was rather peculiar, myself. Here’s why. (I like to think I was also slightly amusing, but doubtless the emphasis should be on “slight,” or perhaps “not at all.”)