George W. Bush: Welcome Back to Dallas, Sort Of


Any moment now I expect to see the familiar face of our former President, George W. Bush, in the parking lot of our local grocery store. Maybe I’ll run into Laura Bush on the treadmill at the Cooper Aerobics Center where both worked out on trips to Dallas. Once they are settled into 10141 Daria Place, I expect her mailbox to runneth over with invitations from countless charitable organizations, asking her as a former First Lady to be honorary chair and spearhead fundraising. And if only I attended Highland Park United Methodist Church, I may even have the benefit of praying with both the former President and his wife in that venerable Dallas institution: Bible Study.

But the Bush family’s return to Dallas may not be as spectacular as they are hoping. Not that local journalists would be so rude as to throw a shoe, but when your 27 year-old hairdresser tells you she would refuse to style the former First Lady’s locks, you know something ain’t right.

When George and Laura Bush left Dallas in 1994, we were sad to see them move. They sold a 3600 square-foot Austin stone home with a gravel driveway in Preston Hollow – a grassy, treed Dallas neighborhood known for its rich share of high net worth individuals. The Bushes lived in a lovely but modest part of PH – they owned a half-acre lot, a far cry from the one to 12 acre mansions west of Preston Road

Texas pretty much loved his leadership, though it has been said that the governor of Texas really doesn’t do much of anything. “In 35 years of hanging around the Capitol...I have never seen anyone that good at the game of politics,” wrote Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka in 2004. “It was impossible to be around the guy and not like him. He filled a room. He was always himself. He said what he thought. He had the ability to let down his guard without losing the dignity of 'I am your governor'. Not the governor – your governor.”

In the Capitol, Bush was a uniter, not a divider and, as Burka writes, he fought the extremists in both parties. “He had the courage to tackle the most important issues: public education and the tax structure. He had a great staff. He made appointments based on ability, not litmus tests. He had the decency to stay above petty politics.” Their twin girls, who had attended the same exclusive private girl’s school in Dallas as my own daughter, opted for Austin public schools. That choice clearly planted the new governor as a “man of the people”.

Down here, we thought Washington was a mess led by a shameful president. Bush would go to Washington and ditch most of the BS.

In 2000, he was the man of the hour. A devout Christian, a conservative; nod nod, wink wink, we never believed Laura really was all that conservative. We didn’t think the President was, either. After all, this was the man who lost his 1978 run for Congress to a conservative Christian Democrat named Kent Hance, who stung the Bush campaign by spreading word that young Bush was plying college voters with alcohol, the drink of the devil.

Then our attention turned to the fact that religious fanatics from another part of the world murdered 2,000 Americans at the Pentagon, World Trade Center, and in a wooded Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001. Stem cell research, abortion rights, the $1.6 trillion tax cut were no longer Job One – we feared for our safety and couldn’t even open the mail without concern the envelope was laced with Anthrax.

Post 9/11, Dallas was solidly supportive of the Bushes. Then came the Iraq invasion and all the other disastrous bookmarks of his dual terms that made even the most loyal hometown supporters wonder – what is up with him? What happened to our governor? Bush had promised us a crisp, tight-ship of state. Instead, we got two wars and evidence of more disorganization, culminating with the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression.

America was fed up; even Dallas was losing patience. Prior to the November election, I gasped one day while driving through the backstreets of Preston Hollow. The Bushes’ own neighborhood had more Obama yard signs than McCain, even in the yards of the homes flanking his old one. President Obama picked off the three largest urban counties in Texas – Dallas, Harris (Houston, home of papa Bush) and Bexar (San Antonio, heavily Hispanic). McCain did win Texas, but Obama racked up 43.8 percent of the total vote.

Texas has changed in the 15 years since the Bushes left Dallas. We are more diverse, and a Hispanic majority is on the horizon. Not sure how they view the former president, but they adore his nephew, handsome and half-Latino George P. Bush – someone to watch closely.

Meanwhile Dallas’s population has expanded exponentially, and we are poised to become one of the largest urban centers in the country. Our population is younger, a combination of maturing offspring – children of the Baby Boomers like Jenna and Barbara – and an influx of people who moved here from other metro areas, many post 9/11.

We are finally developing an urban core, though the recession and credit crunch has slowed progress and put several developments on hold. We have a Ritz Carlton, a W Hotel and Residences. Even Philippe Starck has his imprint etched on Dallas glass. The Perots and Tom Hicks built a magnificent downtown sports arena that promises to be a Times Square. The Mandarin Oriental got us all stirred up then put on the brakes. More recently, one charming high rise project halted construction, leaving a skeleton shell and returning the few buyers’ deposits. Other ambitious projects are leasing cheaply just to pull in warm bodies.

We have more foreigners living in Dallas; Mexican food is no longer the only exotic fare in town. Travel north of LBJ/Interstate 635, the major highway that divides blue-ribbon real estate from the ‘burbs, and you find entire communities of Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims – including a sprawling mosque.

George Bush may have super-glued himself to the religious right, but while he was gone, Dallas grew more liberal and tolerant. Gay men hold hands, kiss in public, and lead corporations. A gay Dallas couple has just filed the state’s first same-sex divorce case. You see more crunchy people and Birkenstocks: Whole Foods has stores across the city. We eat more granola and yogurt and shun the preservatives.

Even our garbage collection has changed: the president will have to divide paper from plastic into big blue bins to be rolled out bi-weekly.

There are vestiges of the past: Harvey Goff sold his family hamburger shop, famous locally for insulting their own customers even as they munch on a thick, greasy burger. Jimmy Francis – a Bush supporter – bought the stores and shut down the Lover’s Lane location to make room for a Geek Squad. But there is still a store near SMU.

Most significant, however, is how the Housing boom changed the face of North Dallas, including Preston Hollow. Dallas may remember how the economy Bush inherited was not in the best of shape, either, and was in fact sinking into recession. The Bush housing policy aimed to make home ownership a dream come true for every American via low interest rates. The cheap money made Dallas a crane-city. The mid-century ranches were scrapped to make way for everyone’s dream home – a 7000 square-foot stone castle-ette with turrets, porte cocheres, media rooms. While this began at the tail of the 90s boom, Bush housing policies – those low interest rates – magnified the momentum. Now even homes built in 1994 are looking worn.

So you can’t say that George Bush didn’t change Dallas. But as the Bushes settle in, they also might notice how much the place has changed while they were gone.

Candace Evans is the Editor of DallasDirt, a Dallas-based real estate blog for D Magazine Media Partners.