WASHINGTON — 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 the 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 reins of the executive branch have 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 were not apparent in the Bush send-off at the steps of a helicopter on the Capitol grounds where the two men parted ways.
Cheers and waves
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 12 noon EST (1900 GMT) as required by the U.S. Constitution.
Continuing a White House ritual, Bush left a note for Obama in his desk in the Oval Office that wished the new president 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 United States by Britain in 1879.
A present for Mrs. Bush
In the morning, before having coffee at the White House, first lady Michelle Obama handed Laura Bush a present. Inside was a leather-bound journal inscribed with a quote from Louis L'Amour, writer of stories about the United States' Wild West past: "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.
Video: Texas welcomes back former Pres. Bush Bush began his last day in the Oval Office before 7 a.m. He spoke on the telephone with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, former White House chief of staff Andy Card and T.D. Jakes, pastor of a megachurch in Dallas, Texas, 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.
Other political news of note
Obama challenges Naval Academy graduates to help restore trust in institutions
In a speech to the graduating class of 2013 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., President Barack Obama challenged the 1,047 graduates to “live with integrity” and help restore trust in a military that has been stained by recent charges of sexual assault.
- Republicans' 'Mad Lib' IRS controversy
- Obama reframes rules of engagement on terrorism
- IRS official Lerner placed on leave
- Heckler repeatedly interrupts Obama speech
- Obama challenges Naval Academy graduates to help restore trust in institutions
The changing of the guard was evident. In the morning, Perino passed out boxes of Bush's favorite candy 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 helicoptered 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, the designation used only by the president.
A Midland rally
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 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."
Dudley Winn, a cotton farmer on the South Plains of West Texas, drove two hours to greet the ex-president.
"It's a special day, but it's a sad day," Winn said. "He held our country together with the values we respect. He did the job we asked him to do. He kept our values safe."
After the Midland rally, the Bushes were to fly to Waco, Texas, on their way to their 1,600-acre ranch in nearby Crawford.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.