Fri, Aug 11, 2006 - Page 7 News List

`Western White House' the perfect backdrop for Bush

PECKING ORDER At US President George W. Bush's home in Texas, the accommodation you are given reflects your station in life or relationship to the chief executive


All manner of critters -- not including the ones who fly in each August from Washington -- can be found here in the dry Texas grasslands: wild turkeys and doves, grasshoppers and fire ants, cottonmouth snakes and, of course, armadillos. Mostly, they live in harmony with President George W. Bush on his 1,000 hectare ranch, Prairie Chapel.

This week, one threatened the carefully scripted imagery of a presidential news conference.

With its live oaks and scrubby trails in perpetual need of clearing, the ranch provides a useful backdrop for a range of White House story lines, from president-as-jock to president-as-regular guy. Bush sometimes greets reporters in full Texas regalia: blue jeans, cowboy boots and oversize brass belt buckle. Last year, the White House photographer captured the president and Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France winner, barreling past a field of black-eyed Susans.

But this year, with the Middle East in turmoil and the White House still struggling to recover from its handling of Hurricane Katrina at the end of last summer, a different story line was in order.

So it was that Bush, joined by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, held a rare full-scale news conference from an airplane hangar, built for the presidential helicopter, Marine One, just off his property. The stage was set just like the White House briefing room -- blue curtain, wooden lectern, oval-shaped sign bearing the presidential seal and the phrase: "The Western White House, Crawford, Texas."

If you're president and you start a club, you get to make the rules.

So it is with the "100 Degree Club," founded by Bush several years ago to promote exercise, or perhaps test staffers' grit, in the scorching Central Texas heat.

The rules are simple: Members run 5km, or bike for 16km, when the thermometer hits triple digits on the Fahrenheit scale (37oC). The reward for finishing: a photo with the president and a gray athletic shirt emblazoned with a Texas star encircled by the words "The President's 100 Degree Club."

The club met on Tuesday afternoon, and 18 intrepid White House aides, including the new press secretary, Tony Snow, who had earlier predicted the race would turn into "a pant-out," turned up. Most, including Snow, finished. But the ones who didn't learned the hard way that Bush does not make exceptions to his rules.

They didn't get the shirt.

Protocol is essential in the White House. The Western White House, where the accommodations reflect one's station in life, is no exception.

The president and first lady Laura Bush stay in "the main house," the low-slung modern ranch house they built after buying the land in 1999. Everyone else's lodgings follow a kind of unwritten caste system, with three basic classifications: guests, staff and the lowest of the low, reporters.

Reporters and press aides, including Snow, stay 30km away at the Hilton in downtown Waco.

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