By NANCY BENAC
WASHINGTON – The table can be laden with an impressive lunchtime spread of turkey, ham, cheese and other fixings, but George W. Bush will be off poking his head in the refrigerator.
“He generally wants peanut butter and jelly, or egg salad, and he fixes that himself,” reports longtime friend Nancy Weiss.
Meet George Bush at ease. Well, as close as he gets to being at ease. Even when Bush is kicking back with friends, there’s little time to waste.
“The rest of us will still be lolling around eating sandwiches and George will suddenly cut the pie or the cake – and usually not in the manner that we would’ve served it,” jokes Weiss. “Certainly not in nice, straight, pie-shaped pieces.”
Bush’s friends, an enthusiastically partial lot, sound like a broken record when they describe the Texas governor/presidential candidate in his off-duty hours: “A go-getter.” “Not a sitter-arounder.” “Energy, positive energy.”
He likes renting videos with a good moral (but no sentimental “chick flicks,” please); got a laugh out of “Austin Powers”; enjoys a competitive game of Scrabble; devours the baseball box scores on the sports page; and admits he’s a “needler” and a “quipper.”
He’s the blue jeans-and-grungy shoes guy who likes to catch fish from one cattle tank on the family’s Texas ranch, plop them in a cooler and ferry them elsewhere to build up stock in other tanks. Or head out to chop cedar. Or go searching for the mouth of the little limestone canyon he recently discovered. Or go jogging. He says running is the one thing he couldn’t live without.
“I don’t know that he’s ever really at ease,” says Robert McCleskey, a friend from Midland since grade school and the family’s accountant. “It seems like he’s always wound up and going. He plays a round of golf in two hours.”
On weekend retreats to the ranch, Bush is happy to stand duty at the barbecue.
Anticipating some dove hunting on a 100-plus degree day last month, Bush explained that the birds could be marinated, but “I’m probably just going to throw them right on the grill.”
“I’m not the world’s best cook, to be frank with you,” he confessed. “Let me just say this – they’re not going to be raw by the time I get through with them.”
Bush says his time at the isolated, 1,600-acre ranch keeps him centered on “exactly what’s important in life.” So does his religious faith, says his only sister, Doro Koch.
Bush has always been a “rascal,” Koch says, but “he might seem a lot lighter in spirit than he really is. I think he’s got a much deeper side.”
Weiss, a longtime friend of the Bushes along with her husband Mike, says Bush finds time every day for the things that are “important to him – a time when he runs, a time when he does his meditation and Bible reading, a time when he reads issues, a time when he reads for pleasure.”
Even time for an occasional nap during a relaxing weekend with family and friends, she says, although Bush often will already be waking up when others are still settling into their snooze. At night, he generally reads himself to sleep by 10:30, but may catch a little of ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight.”
Keeping up a family ritual, wife Laura says, Bush makes coffee in the mornings and brings two cups and the newspapers back to bed, a throwback to the days when he’d bring in the couple’s twin daughters, one baby for each of them to hold. Now the girls are off to their first year of college.
Intimates describe Bush as intensely loyal to his friends. The flip side: his wariness that outsiders might cozy up to him for their own benefit.
Weiss, who has been going through surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer, says Bush never fails to check in on her from the campaign trail.
McCleskey recalls Bush calling him in Midland the day before the first debate with Al Gore and simply “wanting to know what other people out here were doing, what everybody was up to.”
While Bush makes time for friends, his insistence on punctuality is ever in evidence.
Rob Dieter, a University of Colorado law professor and an old college roommate of Bush’s, recalls a weekend visit to Austin when Bush, then part owner of baseball’s Texas Rangers, arranged to take Dieter and his son to a game. “With him, it’s: ‘OK, we’re coming to pick you up at 6, we’ve got to be there by 6:20.’ You better be ready or you’re going to miss your ride.”
Or as Bush wrote in his autobiography: “I don’t wait well.”
Further, he admits to a few faults that loyal friends are loath to bring up, confessing to impatience and abruptness on occasion. Like when irritated by his pet peeve: cell phones and beepers that interrupt his concentration.
“I can be blunt,” he wrote, “probably sometimes too blunt for my own good.”
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