WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Ah, summer vacation. The beach? Camping? Perhaps a week off in the city, catching a show or museum?
Or how about lugging a chain saw around for hours in 100-degree heat, chopping up cedar trees? Ah, summer vacation for President Bush.
The president chooses to unwind during August in a furnace called central Texas, and his most cherished pastime there is "clearing brush" on his 1,600-acre ranch. This summertime hobby, he has said, along with fishing and jogging, helps him relieve his job stress.
A man cut from the frontier, Bush dismisses any notion that he should be sprawled on some breezy beach.
"Most Americans," he told a reporter last summer, "don't sit in Martha's Vineyard, swilling white wine." (The Vineyard just happened to be a favorite summer destination for President Bill Clinton.)
The president seems happiest wandering the canyons and prairies on his spread outside Crawford, Texas, wielding a chain saw, showing no mercy to unwanted flora. He is typically escorted by friends or aides as well as by Secret Service agents.
Bush lays waste to cedar and other species that dare sap water from his oak trees or stand in the way of walking trails. The president hacks, chops and buzzes. He loads dead brush into burn piles. Never mind the dry, stifling heat. He's out there, sweaty, grimy, bleeding from cuts, and yes, he likes it.
The president returned Friday night from a trip to California to begin five days on the ranch with an empty public schedule. There is a lot of brush to clear.
"The president began his day with his usual intelligence and national security briefings," a White House aide told reporters at the ranch recently. "He has been out clearing brush for the better part of the morning."
"Better part of the morning" being longer than some presidential visits to U.S. cities, it seems worth examining Bush's zeal for brush-clearing.
For the uninitiated, a rancher considers brush any plant life that detracts from his environment. Such nuisances suck up precious water, block desirable trees from getting sunlight, or just take up space and prevent a rancher from having clear land for cattle - or himself - to roam.
Cedar trees are a prime target for Bush.
The ranch is a battlefield.
Offering a walking tour to an Associated Press reporter last year, Bush referred to cedars as if they were Saddam Hussein's forces. Ousting them, he said, means "liberating" oak trees. Oaks can then have access to water and light and live in freedom. A battle is won.
"Oh, baby!" Bush cried out victoriously last year as he tossed chopped cedar onto a pile to be torched.
Last summer, Bush explained to the AP reporter who trailed him around the ranch just why he enjoys hours of brush-clearing: "I'm able to clear my mind, and it helps me put it all in perspective. You're always the president. No president can fully escape the job, nor should they want to. But you can put yourself in a different environment."
When not clearing brush at his presidential retreat, Bush may be fishing or taking drives in a beat-up pickup truck, country tunes blaring. In what aides describe as the "Western White House," the president also occasionally welcomes foreign leaders and meets with advisers.
Bush's passion for ranch life seems genuine. It is also politically convenient.
Public images of a robust, chain saw-toting president in blue jeans with a saucer-size belt buckle project just the image he has sought to cultivate. He is a cowboy, a Texan - pure Americana. He plays up this lifestyle and plays down his years at Yale and Harvard and his family's patrician New England roots and long ties to Washington politics.
Crawford - dusty and parched - is the ultimate contrast to Kennebunkport, Maine, where Bush's vacationing father used to cruise the waves in a cigarette boat, encountering only cool blue water.
President Ronald Reagan shared Bush's penchant for ranch toil. He spent hours clearing brush on his ranch outside Santa Barbara, Calif. Like Bush, he valued extended stays away from Washington in quietude. It is estimated that Reagan spent nearly a full year of his eight-year presidency on his ranch.
Robert A. Caro, the Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer of President Lyndon B. Johnson, notes that LBJ also loved his ranch, a family estate his father lost to the bank when LBJ was a boy. Johnson bought the property back years later and was obsessed with beautifying the landscape.
But whereas Bush enjoys getting his hands dirty, LBJ preferred to have others buzz and cut brush under his watch. Still, Caro says, "all these presidents - Johnson, Reagan and Bush - seemed to have some sort of need to improve their place."
"It was a change for them from the pressures of Washington," he says. "When you do something with your land, you do it, and it's done. You fill a ravine. You clear brush. You chop a tree. It's not tangled up in politics. It's not, 'Gee, I ordered the federal government to do this, and nothing happened.'"
Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University, notes that serving as leader of the free world "is a demanding job" and that all presidents seek ways to escape the pressures of the White House.
The younger Bush also runs religiously. He has begun a "100-degree" club for anyone who can endure the Texas heat with him.
What distinguishes Bush, Greenstein says, is an almost military-style commitment to physical exertion perhaps unmatched by any of his predecessors. It relates, Greenstein says, to the self-discipline Bush adopted once he decided at age 40 to give up alcohol.
"His day is not complete if he is not pumping iron," Greenstein says of Bush. "This is a guy addicted to his own endorphins."
At the ranch, aides say, the president spends at least several hours clearing brush on a given day, usually between security briefings that begin about 7 a.m. and a noontime lunch. When Bush is not there, ranch hands do the work.
Bob Rush, president of the farm bureau in Crawford, says many ranchers spray chemicals or hire companies with bulldozers to clear their brush these days.
Still, he says, some ranchers do like to go out themselves and, like the president, chop and buzz, mostly for fun.
"I'm sure it's a form of relaxation for the president," Rush says. "I don't think it would be if he had to do that day in and day out."