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DALLAS — Preparations are under way to build the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University; a new home has been purchased, and even a few luxury stores might get some business.
The Bushes are coming home to Dallas.
When the power and the burdens of the presidency shift to Barack Obama on Jan. 20, the former first couple will transition to the city where they lived before Bush became governor of Texas in 1995. It is a place where the President, whose popularity has sunk to record lows in polls, has both admirers and detractors.
“There is a small core group that is excited, a small core group that is furious, and the great unwashed masses don’t give a s—,” said Alan Peppard, a lifestyle columnist at the Dallas Morning News.
The core group includes people like Janie Condon, a member of the Henry S. Miller family, owners of the luxury Highland Park Village shopping center.
“Everyone in my circle is thrilled,” said Condon, a longtime resident of the staunchly Republican Highland Park neighborhood. “They are very integrated into society. People like him because he is real and friendly. Even though he is not a real Texan [Bush was born in New Haven, Conn.], we think of him as a Texan because Texas is all about being a straight talker and straight shooting.”
Obama won 57 percent of the Dallas County vote, becoming the first Democrat to win the presidential race here since 1964. And John Wiley Price, a Democrat and one of four elected Dallas County commissioners with administrative oversight, isn’t a Bush fan.
“It’s bad enough he’s from Texas, and now he’s going to come back to Dallas,” Price said. “It’s not as though his legacy is one we want to look to. It kind of puts a target on us.”
The Bushes have history in Dallas — they lived in the leafy, affluent neighborhood of Preston Hollow from late 1988 until moving to the Texas Governor’s Mansion in Austin in 1995. And it is to Preston Hollow they will return. The couple has purchased an 8,501-square-foot, four-bedroom home on a cul-de-sac of multimillion-dollar estates.
During their Dallas years, Bush owned 10.8 percent of the Texas Rangers baseball team — which he sold for a $15 million profit — and served as its face and chief promoter, providing a public platform to launch his gubernatorial campaign.
“Both of them are very well liked, so no matter how you feel about his years in the White House, I think people will welcome them back,” said Roger Horchow, the Tony Award-winning Broadway producer of “13” and “Gypsy” and founder of Horchow Collection home decor, which is now part of NM Direct. “They have a lot of friends on both sides of the political spectrum.”
Much of Dallas society has links to the Bush family via an array of professional and social connections. Horchow, for instance, worked closely at his catalogue company with Clay Johnson, who was Bush’s roommate at Phillips Academy and Yale and serves in his administration as deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget.
Condon knows Bush’s daughter Jenna from being her counselor for eight years at Camp Longhorn in Burnet, Tex., near Austin.
The Bushes’ return is good news for Escada at Highland Park Village, Neiman Marcus and couturier Michael Faircloth, all of whom Laura Bush has patronized for the classic, tailored attire she favors. Oscar de la Renta, who has often dressed her for formal affairs, also has a store at NorthPark Center here.
“It will be wonderful to have her energy back in Dallas,” said Faircloth, who started making suits for Laura Bush in 1994 and still counts her as an active client.
The scope of the Bushes’ activities is uncertain, but Laura Bush said recently on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that the couple will probably spend weekdays in Dallas and weekends at their 1,583-acre ranch in Crawford, about 110 miles southwest of the city.
She is expected to continue to support literacy and women’s rights in Afghanistan and will likely be courted by Dallas charities as well her alma mater, SMU.
“Certainly at SMU, she will be pretty involved,” said an associate of the First Lady, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “A number of her friends are tied into different charitable organizations, and she’s very loyal, so she will lend support.”
The Bushes’ Dallas confidants are wealthy entrepreneurs and their wives, who are pillars of the charity scene. They are close to Jim Francis, an attorney who was one of Bush’s biggest fund-raisers, and his wife, Debbie, who chairs the advisory board of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Other longtime friends are Rusty Rose, one of Bush’s former partners in the Texas Rangers and his wife, Deedie. Their daughter, New York designer Lela Rose, employed the Bushes’ daughter Barbara as an intern, and created bridesmaid dresses for the May wedding of Jenna Bush.
The Bushes also are close to beer distributor Barry Andrews and his wife, Lana, major donors to the Crystal Charity Ball, an elite fund-raiser for children’s charities, and to the Cattle Baron’s Ball, the nation’s single largest fund-raiser for cancer research; as well as Jeanne L. Phillips, a retired ambassador and Bush fund-raiser who is senior vice president for corporate affairs at Hunt Oil Co., and her husband, David, a psychotherapist.
Much of the former president’s time is likely to be spent on the $300 million George W. Bush Presidential Center, to be built on 25 acres at SMU, which sits on the eastern edge of University Park in central Dallas.
“His library will be here, and he’ll be involved with charitable groups and raising money,” said Crawford Brock, owner of Stanley Korshak, the luxury specialty store. “It will be kind of fun to have an ex-president here.”
Bush will spearhead the fund-raising campaign to establish his presidential center, which will comprise a library, housing documents and artifacts of the Bush administration; a museum with permanent and traveling exhibits, and a public policy institute. Designed by architect Robert Stern, dean of the Yale University School of Architecture, the center is to open in spring 2013.
“It will house senior fellows and world leaders on sabbatical to talk about how to create policy solutions for the problems that we will be confronting for the rest of our lives,” said Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the center.
Langdale is a hotel developer and friend of the president who served as ambassador to Costa Rica.
Though some SMU professors have opposed the institute as partisan and inappropriate for a college campus, the private university maintains the two organizations will interact but remain independent, and “one does not define the other,” said Brad Cheves, vice president of development at SMU.
“It brings a storehouse of history to Dallas of eight of the most crucial years in our nation’s history to be examined, researched, discussed and debated,” Cheves said. “To have a former president on the campus is living history for a community, and that’s important.”
It may also be a tourist attraction. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum in Little Rock, Ark., has attracted at least 300,000 people a year since it opened in November 2004, said spokesman Jordan Johnson.
Bruce Buchanan, professor of government with a specialty in the presidency at the University of Texas, said history shows that Bush’s tumultuous two terms won’t affect his stature in Texas.
“Other past presidents who left office under less than high approval on the part of the American people, such as Harry Truman, were well received when they went back home because people are proud in the home town or home state to have a president,” Buchanan said. “He will be well-treated and well-received. That’s not to say that people in Dallas are unaware that his performance was judged harshly by the larger public.”