Burnishing an Image at the USA Corral

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Bush's summer vacation at the 1,583-acre spread, which ends Friday after close to five weeks, allows him not only to relax, but to remind the nation that he's a Cowboy President. It's a tradition started by Teddy Roosevelt, and followed by Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, that casts the chief executive as a plain-talking, outdoors-loving leader.

With a handful of cattle now on the property, some Texans suggest that calling the place a ranch could be considered a stretch.

"There are some guys that are all hat and no cattle. The president's not that way; he's hat and five cattle," joked Austin lawyer and former U.S. Rep. Kent R. Hance, who as a Democrat beat Bush in a 1978 congressional race by portraying him as an Ivy League interloper.

The White House declined to let a reporter look at the grounds or interview ranch hands while the president and First Lady Laura Bush finished their vacation.

Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino confirmed that the bovine population had fallen sharply since former ranch foreman Kenneth Engelbrecht got rid of his cattle and vacated the property a few months ago. Engelbrecht, a member of the family that sold the ranch to Bush in 1999, had been leasing back pasture and tending a herd that numbered about 200.

Bush's ranch acquisition made him the latest incarnation of the cowboy-in-chief, an iconic political figure invented by Theodore Roosevelt in the late 19th century. Roosevelt, before he founded the Rough Riders or ran for president, spent two years running a cattle operation in the Badlands of North Dakota. He failed as a commercial rancher but accomplished a remarkable personal transformation in the process."Roosevelt was asthmatic. He had Coke-bottle glasses. He had a funny way that he talked," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, director of Tulane University's Theodore Roosevelt Center."But he learned the way that men talk in the West and refashioned himself from an aristocratic dandy into a cowboy." The tradition was handed down to Lyndon Johnson, who bought a south Texas ranch from his Aunt Frank and Uncle Clarence and launched a 2,700-acre commercial Hereford breeding operation that continues to this day."It was a full-fledged ranch, yes sir," said Edward Meier, who worked for Johnson as a herdsman in the 1960s and later became foreman of the LBJ Ranch for the National Park Service."He was really involved. He wanted the irrigation pumps running. He wanted the tractors running. He wanted lots of action going." The legacy was carried on by Ronald Reagan, who spent a fair amount of his presidency at his 688-acre Rancho del Cielo in California's Santa Ynez Valley. Reagan did not raise cattle, but he rode horses, cleared brush and chopped wood for the fireplace that provided the adobe ranch house's only heat. Brinkley said Bush had successfully adopted the populist cowboy persona, which he described as the"ultimate American male archetype of our time" and a reassuring symbol to a society that likes to divide history's figures into good guys and bad guys."As much as people may complain that Bush is in Crawford, a lot of Americans like seeing him in blue jeans with a big belt buckle, walking down a dirt road or clearing brush," Brinkley said."It's become a stage set for him."

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