WASHINGTON, Jan 21 – George W. Bush brought the curtain down Tuesday on his turbulent eight-year presidency with a final stroll in the Oval office and a fond, private goodbye to loyal aides before heading home to Texas.
Bush said next to nothing in public before leaving Washington for his home state of Texas, but gave a private speech to former staffers at the air force base that is home to Air Force One, now President Barack Obama’s airplane.
An aide who attended the rally, which was in a hangar and off-limits to reporters, said Bush described himself as "thankful, grateful, and joyful" and would now take pride in being known as "Citizen Bush."
Speaking to well-wishers later in the West Texas city of Midland, Bush joked that First Lady Laura Bush "told me she was excited about me mowing the lawn and taking out the trash — it’s my new domestic agenda."
Bush, who has always been defiant in the face of his deep unpopularity with the US public, also declared: "When I get home tonight and look in the mirror, I am not going to regret what I see. Except maybe some gray hair."
As the historic day began, Bush hosted Obama for a traditional coffee at the White House before they climbed into the armored limousine they shared to the Democrat’s noon (1700 GMT) inauguration as the nation’s first African-American president.
And the outgoing leader followed the custom of leaving a note for the incoming chief executive in the top drawer of the massive Resolute Desk — made from the timbers of the British ship of the same name — in the Oval Office.
Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino declined to give details of the confidential letter, but said he focused on "the fabulous new chapter president-elect Obama is about to start, and that he wishes him the very best."
In his last hours before leaving office, Bush spoke by telephone with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, and former White House chief of staff Andy Card, she told reporters.
Bush also took a final walk through the Oval Office and "gave me a big kiss on the forehead, which I will never forget," Perino said as she cheerfully handed out candies in boxes emblazoned with the presidential seal.
Bush left Washington straight from Obama’s inauguration at the US Capitol after he and his successor shared a warm handshake and embraced, while their wives kissed each other and the two men on the cheek.
He stopped first at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington to headline a closed-door rally for about 2,000 former aides and staff packed in a hangar and watching the inauguration on a giant television, attendees said.
Cheney, wheelchair-bound because of a back injury, urged them to answer the call to public service again.
Bush nostalgically reflected that "the days are long but the years are short" at the White House.
For the first time since January 20, 2001, his helicopter was not called "Marine One" and the airplane was not "Air Force One" — both call signs reserved for the US president in office.
And his trip to the Capitol was his final as president in the official motorcade, a long procession and familiar Washington sight that includes an ambulance and black trucks filled with bodyguards clutching automatic weapons.
Bush left unfinished wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s to Obama, who repeatedly took aim at his unpopular successor’s record in his inaugural address.
"Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America," the new president said.
Bush, who sat stoically nearby, has worked for months to convince the US public and future historians that he should get credit for guiding the country through a rocky time marked by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
On the economic front, Bush argued that he warned lawmakers but they failed to act, and showcased vastly expanded US aid to fight HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa to those who, like Obama, charged that US moral authority had waned.