Bush exits Washington with grace, controversy

The choreography was smooth, the smiles were gracious, but all the same, President George W. Bush's exit from Washington was less than painless.

To be sure, the now-former president fulfilled his role flawlessly. He extended his hand again and again to his successor - on the steps of the White House for morning coffee, as they entered the limousine to ride together to the inauguration, on the grandstand beneath the Capitol dome. And before he left the White House for the last time, Bush tucked a private note to Obama into the drawer of the desk in the Oval Office that aides said would convey his warmest wishes for his successor.

But wafting around Bush throughout the day were sights and sounds that his presidency, which began with great controversy eight years ago, had ended in controversy as well.

Just as demonstrators clogged the barricades to protest his court-mediated victory in the 2000 election, so the disenchanted lined Pennsylvania Avenue again yesterday to express their dismay with the way that presidency turned out.

As he drove with Obama to Capitol Hill, the once and future presidents passed protesters carrying signs reading "Arrest Bush." When Bush made his entrance onto the grandstand with the orchestra playing "Hail to the Chief" for the last time, the crowd below began singing a different refrain: "Hey, Hey, Hey - Good-bye." One man waved his shoe.

Perhaps nothing seemed to symbolize the wounded presidency as much as former Vice President Dick Cheney, who had to be transported through the inaugural ceremonies in a wheelchair, a cane clutched over his knees. Aides said he injured his back moving boxes into his new residence in Virginia.

Bush is famously thick-skinned. But as the morning wore on, his smile appeared to grow more strained.

Perhaps one reason was the unmistakable enthusiasm for his successor, who drew far greater crowds than Bush did to either of his two inaugurals. Or perhaps it was that despite Obama's repeated thanks and handshakes, many of the words of his inauguration speech must have stung.

Obama appeared to make an effort to be gracious, repeatedly thanking Bush for his help.

Bush's inner circle and the Republican faithful express untarnished pride in Bush's accomplishments and frustration that his presidency has been underappreciated. Several dozen White House staffers organized a private send-off for the president in a closed hangar at Andrews Air Force base at which both the former president and former first lady spoke movingly, according to people familiar with the gathering.

Bush then took off for his childhood home of Midland, Texas, from which he departed eight years ago for his own inauguration. After a rally with friends and supporters, the Bushes were headed for their ranch in Crawford, Texas, no longer to be known as the "Western White House."

Church choirs, high school bands, country music singers and a cheering crowd of at least 20,000 packed a downtown square to welcome Bush and his wife, Laura, in Midland.

"He did a great job for our country," said Cleve Seamon, 61, an oil industry worker who had to stand in place more than five hours to hold a front-row viewing spot. "He stood by his beliefs. He stood by his faith. And we're just so glad he was in office when 9/11 happened."

Smiling broadly but sounding spent, Bush repeatedly told the crowd how happy he was to be back home in Texas - and how he had no regrets for any of the "tough decisions" he had to make as president.

"I gave it my all," Bush said. "Sometimes what I did wasn't popular. But that's OK. I always did what I thought was right. ... When I get home tonight and look in the mirror, I'm not going to regret what I see."

The Chicago Tribune contributed to this article.

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