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Bush ready to ride off into sunset

The cowboy-hat-wearing president has given little indication of what retirement will have in store, but it is sure to include plenty of options.

A resident of Crawford, Texas, leaves a sign addressed to George W Bush while the president was at his ranch a few kilometres away.
A resident of Crawford, Texas, leaves a sign addressed to George W Bush while the president was at his ranch a few kilometres away.

WASHINGTON // George W Bush, the cowboy-hat-wearing Texan who has led the free world for almost a decade, soon will take his final presidential strut through the White House Rose Garden and ride off into the proverbial sunset - or to the best of anyone's knowledge, to Dallas, where he has said he plans to settle down near his presidential library. Mr Bush will bid farewell to the high-octane world of daily intelligence briefings, weekly radio addresses and summits with foreign leaders. And he will leave his presidential legacy for historians to judge.

"I'll be dead when they finally figure it out," Mr Bush once said, with his usual bluntness. Of course, even after the United States' 43rd president rejoins civilian life, which he has not known since he became governor of Texas in 1994, he will never fully blend in. Mr Bush and his family will still be guarded by the Secret Service, he will receive an annual lifetime pension of US$191,000 (Dh701,500), and there will be the library, and perhaps roads and schools named in his honour.

Some former presidents have gone on to start entirely new careers, recapturing the spotlight as philanthropists, judges or even as born-again politicians. But more often, men who have held the country's top office have withdrawn to their private homes and quietly faded into the pages of history books. As for Mr Bush, no one knows for sure what kind of ex-president he will be. Other than his plans to settle in the Lone Star state, the outgoing president has offered few clues.

"I can just envision getting in the car, getting bored, going down to the ranch," Mr Bush told a biographer, referring to his sprawling 6.5-sq-km property in Crawford, Texas. "I'll give some speeches, just to replenish the ol' coffers," Mr Bush added, alluding to the lecture circuit that has been kind to ex-presidents, particularly his predecessor, Bill Clinton. Mr Clinton, who left office in debt in Jan 2001, has since earned more than $40 million from his lectures. Ronald Reagan, the 40th president, once earned $2m for two speeches in Japan.

But some presidential historians question whether Mr Bush, who is not known for his eloquence and whose approval ratings are historically low, has a lucrative future behind the lectern. "I just don't think people will be clamouring to hear him speak," said Joan Hoff, a former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in New York. "At least not until this negativism about him recedes a bit."

However, Max J Skidmore, author of After the White House: Former Presidents as Private Citizens, said Mr Bush should have no problem finding conservative political groups willing to pay "big bucks" for his addresses. "I'm sure they will keep him well fed and happy," he said. Of course, there can be much more to an ex-president's life than lectures. John Quincy Adams, the sixth president - who, by many accounts, had an unproductive four years in office - went on to serve eight terms in Congress, where he fought against the practice of slavery. William Howard Taft, the 27th president, later became the chief justice of the US Supreme Court. And Herbert Hoover, the 31st president, led a committee that restructured the US government.

Other ambitious former presidents, like Jimmy Carter, the 39th commander-in-chief, have gone on to battle some of the world's most pressing issues. Through his non-profit group, the Carter Center, Mr Carter has mediated world conflicts and fought for advances in health and agriculture in the developing world. Mr Clinton's New York City-based William J Clinton Foundation funnels billions of dollars to such causes as fighting Aids and climate change.

But not all ex-presidents find a cause or a reservoir of ambition after leaving the country's top job. "Most of these guys are pretty burned out," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University in Washington. Calvin Coolidge, the country's 30th president, for example, retired to his Massachusetts home and busied himself writing a newspaper column. Mr Reagan, who left office at 77, fought a private battle with Alzheimer's disease. And Mr Bush's father, George HW Bush, the 41st president, rarely makes public appearances.

As for the few who have had great post-presidency success, Ms Hoff said they are usually the presidents who leave office under a "cloud" of controversy and who are looking for a chance to "rehabilitate themselves". Mr Hoover, she noted, left office as a scapegoat for the Great Depression. Mr Carter's term in office was tarnished by the Iranian hostage crisis. And Bill Clinton's second term ended a little more than a year after he was impeached by the House of Representatives.

Mr Bush will leave office under a cloud of his own: two wars and a crippling economic meltdown. But Ms Hoff said she thinks Mr Bush, 62, is not the type to pursue his post-presidency with the same vigour that others have. "He feels no shame or guilt or responsibility for the shape that the country is in," she said. "He has not done anything wrong in his mind." Still, other scholars paint a rosier picture of Mr Bush's retirement.

Sidney Milkis, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia, imagines Mr Bush falling comfortably into the role of "elder statesman". "Ex-presidents, no matter their tenure, tend to have cachet," he said. "I think he will speak with some authority on world affairs and diplomacy." Mr Bush already has plans to start a policy think tank, which will be linked to his presidential library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, though he has disclosed little about the endeavour.

"He is interested in talking about the same issues that he has worked on as president? the importance of keeping the markets open around the world and the importance of promoting freedom," said Mark Langdale, the president of the George W Bush Presidential Library Foundation. Mr Langdale said Mr Bush has been too busy concentrating on his final two months in Washington to think much about the transition back to Texas.

But in a town hall-style meeting in Tipp City, Ohio, last year, Mr Bush revealed at least one detail about his future. "When it's all said and done, when Laura and I head back home," he said, "I will get there and look in the mirror, and I will say: 'I came with a set of principles and I didn't try to change my principles to make me popular'." sstanek@thenational.ae