WASHINGTON (AP) – Leaving the White House for the last time on Tuesday, President George W. Bush blew a kiss out the window of his presidential limousine, a gesture that capped an eight-year administration marked by two wars, recession and the biggest terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Bush’s exit was bittersweet. He left office with low approval ratings, but he remained upbeat, smiling and joining in the celebration of President Barack Obama’s ascent to rock-star status, even as he faces daunting challenges, especially a depressed economy.
This Inauguration Day was about more than the traditional transfer of presidential power. When Bush clasped Obama’s hand before beginning his journey home to Texas, their handshake marked the first time that the executive branch of government has been handed off to a black president.
If there were any hard feelings between the incoming 47-year-old Democrat and the outgoing 62-year-old Republican, they weren’t apparent in the Bush send-off at the steps of a helicopter on the Capitol grounds where the two men parted ways.
After the inauguration ceremony, many in the crowd at the Capitol cheered loudly and waved goodbye at Bush’s helicopter as it flew over throngs of people gathered on the Mall to witness history.
But not everyone was respectful. Weary of Bush, some people in the crowd chanted “Na-na-na-nah, hey, hey, hey, goodbye” when they heard a television broadcaster announce, “George Bush is no longer president of the United States.”
Bush actually began the first few minutes as an ex-president listening to a musical prelude at the swearing-in ceremony. Obama had not yet taken the oath of office, but while the musicians played, he became president at noon EST, according to the Constitution.
Keeping with a White House ritual, Bush left a note for Obama in his desk in the Oval Office, wishing him well.
“I won’t provide any details, but the theme is similar to what he’s said since election night about the fabulous new chapter President-elect Obama is about to start, and that he wishes him the very best,” outgoing White House press secretary Dana Perino said about the note.
She said the two-term Republican incumbent wrote the message to his Democratic successor on Monday and left it in the top drawer of his desk, which was crafted from timbers from the H.M.S. Resolute and given to the U.S. by Great Britain in 1879.
In the morning, before having coffee at the White House, soon-to-be first lady Michelle Obama handed Laura Bush a present. Inside, was a leather-bound journal inscribed with a quote from western fiction writer Louis L’Amour: “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning.” Also in the gift box was a pen engraved with Tuesday’s date, for Mrs. Bush to begin her memoirs, according to Mrs. Obama’s spokeswoman Katie McCormick Lelyveld.
Bush began his last day in the Oval Office before 7 a.m. EST. He spoke on the phone with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, former White House chief of staff Andy Card and T.D. Jakes, the pastor of a megachurch in Dallas who preached at a private church service that Obama attended before the inauguration. Bush took one last stroll around the south grounds of the White House.
The changing of the guard was evident. In the morning, Perino passed out boxes of Bush M&Ms in the West Wing. In the afternoon, members of Obama’s team were familiarizing themselves with their new quarters. “Now we just have to figure out how to log onto our computers,” incoming White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.
Citizen Bush lingered only two hours in Washington. From the Capitol, Bush and his family flew to Andrews Air Force Base where he made private remarks to supporters inside a hangar. The Bush family, including former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush, then took a flight to Midland, Texas, riding one last time on the familiar blue-and-white presidential aircraft. It was called Special Air Mission 28000 instead of Air Force One since Bush no longer was president.
A crowd of nearly 20,000 people welcomed the Bushes at Centennial Plaza in Bush’s childhood home of Midland – the same place he stopped on his way to the nation’s capital for his own inauguration in 2001. The president’s plane flew low over the plaza, prompting the crowd to wave red-white-and-blue W’s.
“The presidency was a joyous experience, but as great as it was, nothing compares with Texas at sunset,” Bush said, standing next to his wife. “Tonight I have the privilege of saying six words that I have been waiting to say for a while – It is good to be home.”
Bush, who expects to wake up Wednesday at his 1,600-acre ranch in Crawford, Texas, said he went to Washington with a clear set of principles, and left with them intact.
“I never took an opinion poll to tell me what to think, and I’m coming home with my head held high and a sense of accomplishment,” he said.
Associated Press writers Betsy Blaney in Midland, Texas, and Liz Sidoti, Philip Elliott, Pam Hess, Matt Barakat, Jennifer Kerr and Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.