W’s ranch spurs homely feel to President’s image 

George Bush bought his Texas ranch just prior to the presidential primaries. Does this make it a true home or a PR ploy? Douglas Quenqua and Sherri Deatherage Green report. 

Published in PRWeek USA , Sept. 3, 2001  

     All presidents have their vacation spots, and all vacation spots have their PR value. The WASPy shores of Hyannis Port helped America forget JFK’s Irish Catholic heritage; Martha’s Vineyard and its effete North-eastern vibe nearly drowned out Clinton’s Arkansas drawl; and Teddy Roosevelt, after leaving the White House but before seeking a third term, reminded everyone of the burly outdoorsman he was with a year-long African safari. And then there’s the ranch. Reagan and LBJ had theirs, and now George W. Bush has his - and the PR mileage is considerable. All last month, the morning paper and the evening news regularly featured images of the president in a cowboy hat, the president wearing denim, the president standing under a great big Texas sky. The message was clear: “This president is not a politician. He’s a Texan.” To be sure, few doubt that Bush genuinely enjoys — even needs — his time alone among the bluffs, but PR experts agree the locale also does wonders for his image.

    Bush bought his ranch in 1999 as he was preparing his campaign for the presidency. So while the images spell out “ Texas man coming home to his ranch and the soil,” might the reality be closer to “Savvy politician manipulates the media with a well thought-out backdrop”?

    According to Elton Bomer, the retired Texas secretary of state who assisted Bush in his purchase of the ranch, image was not a factor. “One thing I can tell you for sure: there were no PR considerations when he bought that ranch. He purchased it as a great weekend getaway, a place to go on vacation, a place where he could do some fishing.”

     Bomer agrees, however, that the ranch has PR value. “It portrays to the people of the country who he really is, and that is someone who is close to the land and loves the outdoors sincerely. . . . I think people like to know that he’s a regular fellow, not a stuffy aristocrat that wants to stay behind closed doors in air conditioning.”

     Whether or not Bush bought the ranch with such images in mind, his handlers are taking full advantage of the photo opportunities. “Bush’s team sees everything in the context of its potential as a photo op,” claims Mike Hailey, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party. “Camelot was a state of mind when it was associated with the Kennedys. Bush’s people hope Crawford will invoke that same sort of imagery, only with a country-western flavor.”  

LBJ’s home away from home  

     LBJ’s ranch served much the same purpose for him. “When he first came into office, he seemed to be proud of that cowboy image,” remembers his former press secretary George Christian. “He wanted to have pictures taken riding a horse. The Westerner image was something that he cultivated. He built it up; he didn’t try to hide it.” Over time, however, LBJ found that his down-home image began to backfire.  

     “Later he got a little sensitive about the cowboy image. He thought that it was hurting him, that maybe the Eastern intellectuals didn’t really appreciate that and looked down on him.”

      It is unlikely, however, that Bush will experience the same backlash. After all, LBJ was born on his ranch; Bush was born in New Haven , CT , a place synonymous with East Coast privilege. If anything, Bush’s time in Texas is being used to rid him of that Eastern prep-school aura. “A lot of people don’t really believe he’s from Texas ,” says Bill Cryer, former press secretary for Texas Governor Ann Richards, who Bush defeated in 1994. “I think a lot of people, especially people in Texas , see him as sort of a Northeasterner. He has to overcome (that).” Indeed, most of the cows on Bush’s ranch don’t even belong to him, local sources confirm. They belong to Kenneth Englebrecht, who now works as ranch manager and previously owned the land with his father.

    The president owns just three longhorns: two cows given to him by his senior gubernatorial staff as a Christmas present in 1999, and the calf of one of them. Always quick with a nickname, Bush quickly dubbed them Elton (after Elton Bomer) and Ofelia (after his secretary, Ofelia Vanden Bosch). Unfortunately, the name “Elton” turned out to be a bit masculine for what was, in fact, a female animal; Bomer blames himself for the mistake. Once the slip-up was discovered, Bomer says the governor changed the cow’s name to Eltonia.

    Local sources also confirm that the rickety ranch house seen on TV is not the one where Bush’s family actually stays. The Bush residence is on the same property, only tucked further back, where the press does not wander all day. The rickety house is a recently restored structure that predates Bush’s purchase of the land by at least several decades. What it’s used for today, nobody seems to know.  

Cowboy George  

     So, is America buying the Cowboy George image sold by the Western White House (the same name used for LBJ’s spread), which Bush’s handlers called the ranch to offset the impression they were all on the longest presidential vacation since Nixon? Do Americans know that, while LBJ was literally coming home to his ranch, Bush is coming home to his latest real estate purchase? Does it make a difference in how they perceive him?

     “If you did a poll, you’d find that 95 percent of the people couldn’t make that distinction,” claims Cryer. RG Ratcliffe, state political reporter for the Houston Chronicle, agrees. “He’s getting a lot of criticism for how much time off he’s taking, but that’s really kind of an insider game,” Ratcliffe suggests. “In terms of how the public views him, when they see him, (they see) images of him working on the ranch, him being the common man out there. That comes across pretty well. All of these images for the average American are much more positive than the image of a guy walking out to a helicopter on the White House lawn and flying out to Camp David .”  

(c) Copyright Haymarket Business Publications Limited 2001. No part of this data may be reproduced without prior written permission of the copyright owner.

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