By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
CRAWFORD--The lone traffic light that slows passing motorists in the heart of this tiny Central Texas community blinks in silence as another 100-degree day gives way to welcomed, cooling twilight. The 705 residents of this McLennan County dot-on-the-map have made their way home or out to the high school to watch the football team work out in preparation for the upcoming season.
Finally, Crawford, the summer vacation home of President George W. Bush, has retreated to the sleepy little town it has generally been since the Great Depression robbed it of its prosperity and promise.
The rails paralleling Main Street are quiet, the last freight train having passed through hours earlier. Manager Jamie Burgess has put a "closed" sign in the front window of The Red Bull, one of a half-dozen gift shops in town; waitress Kameron Bonner has cleared the last table down at the Spanos Family Coffee Station. The lights are out at the Fina station, and Tod "Doc" Mishler, who rode from Montana in the long-shot hope of speaking to the region's most famous resident, has unsaddled his horse and bedded down for another night of waiting. His political work done, Mayor Robert Campbell is at home, contemplating the Sunday sermon he will deliver to his congregation at the Prairie Chapel United Methodist Church.
And if things go as usual, there won't be much for Crawford's three-man police force to worry about, unless someone ignores the traffic signal or a rancher's cattle break through a fence and help is needed with a midnight roundup.
At the elementary school, the parking lot, earlier filled with dusty SUVs and rental cars, is all but empty. The visiting White House press corps, which had spent the day inside the 90-year-old gymnasium-turned-press center waiting for breaking news that never broke, has retreated to Waco, 20 miles to the east, where amenities like motel rooms, a variety of restaurants and the legal purchase of a tall cool one await.
On this mid-August day, the only noteworthy bulletin passed along to many of the nation's most elite journalists was that a local farmer soon would arrive with a pickup-load of sand and metal stakes and set up a horseshoe-pitching court near the spot where network TV reporters usually stand to give their reports. (Many viewers, who nightly see the bales of hay and farm equipment in the background, might get the impression that the reports are coming from a rural spot very near the Bush ranch. Truth is, the reporters are standing near the high school running track.) As soon as Cathy Horton, a local souvenir and memorabilia designer, could locate some horseshoes, a new way to pass the time in Crawford would be up and running.
Welcome to the hinterland where a once-obscure little scrub brush town in the middle of farm and ranch country has been elevated to international fame. Since lifelong resident Ken Engelbrecht, needing to move his ailing mother closer to her dialysis treatments in nearby Temple, sold Bush his 1,600-acre ranch seven miles outside town, Crawford and its summers have changed dramatically.
Originally a Tonkawa Indian campground, then a once-thriving cotton-ginning center that challenged nearby Waco for designation as the county's commercial center, the town had quietly retreated into the comfortable '90s obscurity enjoyed by many rural Texas communities. Possessing a school system with an exemplary rating, it was a community where everyone was on a first-name basis and kids were free to wander and explore. Crawford wasn't dying, folks insisted; it just wasn't breathing very hard.
And then the president came, bringing with him a steady stream of visiting dignitaries from all over the world, grim-faced Secret Service agents, protesters angry about everything from the war in Iraq to environmental oversights, vacationers detouring through in hopes of catching a glimpse of the leader of the free world, and a cadre of dazed and perspiring reporters who still privately wonder whatever happened to the presidential idea of spending summers in such wonderlands as Kennebunkport or San Clemente.
One need only spend some time in the gymnasium press center or listen to the idle conversations beneath the nearby tent where cameramen prepare to relay the latest news to realize that the men and women of the press would damn well prefer another dateline for their stories.
"If I talked to you," one veteran White House correspondent admitted, "I'd get fired." Mum, apparently, is the word when it comes to candid observations on working in Crawford.
Chris Sutton, a journalist for Accuracy in Media, has even gone so far as to suggest that the annual exile to Texas may have something to do with the angry tenor of much of the political reporting that appeared in major dailies throughout the country during August. "We'd like," he writes, "to think that journalists are machines, professional and above allowing their own sentiments to seep into their reporting. But just maybe the heat has embittered some journalists' pens."
If so, it doesn't seem to concern the president. When he first announced his annual vacation destination, he told a gathering of Republican senators that "the national media will hate it, but I'm going where it's 98 degrees, average temperature, day and night." In fact, his idea of catering to the media rarely goes past an occasional invitation to join him on the ranch for what he calls his "100-Degree Run." Those who complete Bush's three-mile course while the thermometer is in triple-digit range are given a T-shirt that commemorates their survival.