MIDLAND, Texas -- Waving cardboard red, white and blue "W"s, thousands welcomed President George W. Bush and his wife on Tuesday to their post-presidential home in Texas.
"The presidency was a joyous experience but as great as it was nothing compares with Texas at sunset," Bush said to cheers from the crowd of nearly 20,000 as former first lady Laura Bush stood at his side. "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."
In the hours leading up to his return, excerpts of some of Bush's speeches played on a large TV screen, including remarks he made to Congress shortly after the terrorist attacks in 2001.
One little boy waved a sign that read, "President Bush, thank you for keeping me safe" in multicolored lettering.
"It's a special day, but it's a sad day," said Dudley Winn, a cotton farmer who drove two hours from Lubbock to greet Bush on his first stop after leaving office. "He did the job we asked him to do. He kept our values safe."
As the crowd looked on, the jet carrying the Bushes flew over downtown, then landed at the airport in Midland shortly before 5 p.m.
Jan Rhodes, a school teacher in Midland, was on hand when Bush left Midland eight years ago for his inauguration as president. She 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.
Leaving the White House for the last time on Tuesday, 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 a 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 executive branch of government has 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 weren't apparent in the Bush send-off at the steps of a helicopter on the Capitol grounds where the two men parted ways.
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 noon EST, according to the Constitution.
Keeping with a White House ritual, Bush left a note for Obama in his desk in the Oval Office, wishing him 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 U.S. by Great Britain in 1879.
In the morning, before having coffee at the White House, soon-to-be first lady Michelle Obama handed Laura Bush a present. Inside, was a leather-bound journal inscribed with a quote from western fiction writer Louis L'Amour: "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.
Bush began his last day in the Oval Office before 7 a.m. EST. He spoke on the phone with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, former White House chief of staff Andy Card and T.D. Jakes, the pastor of a megachurch in Dallas 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.
The changing of the guard was evident. In the morning, Perino passed out boxes of Bush M&Ms 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.