Cows or no, Bush’s ranch worksBy Warren Vieth Los Angeles Times
CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush calls his Prairie Chapel Ranch “a slice of heaven,” a special place where he can ride his mountain bike, fish his man-made pond and clear brush to his heart’s content.
But is it really a ranch?
Here’s a clue: Secret Service agents now outnumber the cows.
Bush’s summer vacation at the 1,583-acre spread 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 Johnson and Ronald Reagan, that casts the chief executive as a plain-talking, outdoors-loving leader.
The president’s supporters say that’s the real Bush, and they insist he would be spending time at the property he bought in 1999 even if he had not run for president a year later. Still, they acknowledge that Bush accrues political benefits from his time in Crawford.
But with only a handful of cattle now on the property, some Texans suggest that calling the place a ranch might be 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 attorney and former Rep. Kent Hance, a Democrat who beat Bush in a 1978 congressional race by portraying him as an Ivy League interloper.
The White House declined to let a reporter take a look at the grounds or interview ranch hands while the president and first lady were finishing their August vacation.
But Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino confirmed the bovine population had fallen sharply since former ranch foreman Kenneth Engelbrecht left a few months ago. Engelbrecht, a member of the family who sold the ranch to Bush in 1999, had been leasing back pasture and tending a herd that numbered about 200.
Perino initially said the president still kept “a few” cattle on the ranch. Pressed for a more precise head count, she said “four or five.”
The departure of Engelbrecht and his herd raise several perplexing questions, among them: Do four or five cows, plus two visiting Scottish Terriers, constitute a real ranch? And just what is a ranch anyway?
“Not what it used to be,” said Sam Middleton, proprietor of Chas. A. Middleton & Son of Lubbock, one of the biggest ranch brokerages in Texas.
Twenty years ago, Middleton said, anything with fewer than 300 cattle would not be considered a working ranch. But times have changed.
“Now folks are buying the ranches for other purposes, for recreation and enjoyment of land ownership, and just as places to park money,” he said.
The Bushes bought the Prairie Chapel Ranch from the Engelbrecht family for a reported $1.3 million in 1999, shortly after earning a $14 million profit from the sale of the Texas Rangers baseball franchise and a year before George W. Bush’s first run for president.
The Bushes immediately began transforming it into their Texas home, building a 4,000-square-foot, limestone-walled, passive-solar living quarters, adding an 11-acre pond stocked with bass and other fish, and planting native grasses and flowers
Bush prefers bicycles to horses, and he never claimed to be a cattleman. He has described himself as a “windshield rancher” who likes to drive visitors, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, around in a pickup.