WACO, Texas — After an enthusiastic welcome from thousands of cheering Texans in two cities, George W. Bush spent his first night out of office at his Crawford ranch.
Before flying in a helicopter to his 1,600-acre ranch, the former president told about 3,000 well-wishers gathered at a Waco airfield Tuesday night that he was glad to be back in Texas.
“It is a great day because we got to come home once and for all,” Bush, with former first lady Laura Bush at his side, said as the crowd cheered.
The supporters, bundled up against 40-degree temperatures, had waited on the tarmac for more than an hour. Many waved red, white and blue cardboard “W’’s and small American flags. Dozens of children sat on their parents’ shoulders to get a glimpse of Bush, who shook some hands and chatted with some in the crowd after he spoke.
Bush said he was grateful for his friends in Texas and for the opportunity to serve as president over the last eight years.
“I come home with my head held high,” he said, adding that when he got to his Crawford ranch he would look in the mirror and “be proud of what I see.”
After leaving Washington, D.C., earlier Tuesday, Bush arrived in Midland, where he grew up and where thousands held a send-off rally before his first inauguration.
In the hours leading up to his return Tuesday, excerpts of some of Bush’s speeches played on a large TV screen, including remarks he made to Congress shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
One little boy waved a sign that read, “President Bush, thank you for keeping me safe” in multicolored lettering. Others read: “Be Bold, Be Bush” and “43 is back.”
“The presidency was a joyous experience, but as great as it was, nothing compares with Texas at sunset,” Bush told a crowd of about 25,000. “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 from Lubbock to greet Bush on his first stop after leaving office.
“It’s a special day but it’s a sad day,” Winn said. “He’s done eight years of a job well done. He held our country together with the values we respect. He did the job we asked him to do. He kept our values safe.”
Bush spoke about the challenges he had faced, saying that even during some of his most difficult days, he “was always optimistic about the future.”
He lauded those who helped throughout his presidency and defended decisions he said some thought unwise.
“I never took an opinion poll to tell me what to think,” Bush said.
As Bush flew into Midland he wanted to see the gathering from the air. The jet carrying the Bushes and others flew low over downtown so that they could see Centennial Plaza before they landed.
Bush said that while several former presidents told him they had felt bittersweet about leaving office, “For me, there’s nothing to be bitter about. Today is something sweet.”
With Bush at the Midland rally were Karl Rove, former White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolton, Alberto Gonzales, the country’s former attorney general and others from his administration. Bush plans to eventually settle in a north Dallas neighborhood.
Jan Rhodes, a school teacher in Midland, was on hand when Bush left Midland eight years ago for his inauguration and was back Tuesday.
“We watched for eight years and we’re proud of how he served us and how he represented Midland,” she said.
While Bush was born in New Haven, Conn., he spent his childhood in Midland. He returned there as an adult in the 1970s and met the future first lady, who grew up there.
He called meeting her “more meaningful” in his life than “any meeting in the Oval Office.”
“She filled the White House with warmth and my life with joy,” Bush said. “History will show that she was a fabulous first lady.”
Associated Press writer Betsy Blaney contributed to this report from Midland.