WASHINGTON – President Bush aimed to leave town with a clean bill of health, beginning his summer vacation Saturday with a six-hour detour to Bethesda Naval Hospital and his first presidential physical exam.
Bush arrived at the suburban Washington medical facility by helicopter shortly before 8 a.m. and smiled and waved to waiting reporters.
Asked if he was nervous about the examination, he said "No" and walked into the hospital.
The president expected nothing but high marks, spokesman Ari Fleischer said Friday, noting that the 55-year-old Bush is an avid runner who crowed this week that he couldn't wait to get out jogging in the nearly 100-degree heat at his dusty, central Texas ranch.
"The president feels in excellent physical health. As you know, he is an athlete," Fleischer told reporters. At his last medical exam, in September 1999 during the presidential campaign, the 6-foot-tall Bush weighed in at 192 pounds and was found to have excellent cardiovascular fitness.
He and first lady Laura Bush are vacationing at the remote ranch through Labor Day, with several outings planned — in Colorado, Wisconsin, New Mexico and Pennsylvania — to keep the president and his agenda in the public eye.
By the time he returns to the White House, Bush will have spent nearly two months of his presidency at his 1,600-acre spread in Crawford, Texas, plus 14 weekends at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. As such, White House advisers are sensitive to suggestions that Bush might be loafing and have dubbed this his "Home to the Heartland Tour," emphasizing it is a working vacation.
Before leaving the gated White House for the open spaces he craves in Texas, Bush went to the Rose Garden on Friday and promised to return in September with new ideas for improving community life and promoting family values nationwide.
He also gave his administration and Congress a glowing progress report for their first six months in power.
"We're proving that a new tone, a clear agenda and active leadership can bring significant progress to the nation's capital," said Bush, flanked by his Cabinet. "We're ending deadlock and drift."
Adoption, teen pregnancy, school safety, truancy and affordable housing are among the issues Bush may discuss, aides said.
It is part of a fall campaign to showcase the president's moral leadership on initiatives with dual appeal: They don't require cooperation from a deeply partisan Congress and they speak to moderate voters — particularly the women that Republicans will need in the 2002 midterm elections.
White House aides said they are exploring dozens of ideas, including proposals to give parents more time with their families, to add citizenship to school curriculums and to facilitate e-mail between grandparents and grandchildren.
Advisers concede their values agenda is a strategic look-alike to the 1996 re-election campaign of former President Clinton, who backed poll-tested, inexpensive ideas such as uniforms for public school students and cell phones for neighborhood watch programs.
The advisers hope Bush's own small-scale proposals will cushion him politically in the event his bolder agenda on trade, foreign policy and energy runs into trouble.
Vice President Dick Cheney is also taking most of August off at his home in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Like Bush, he has a sprinkling of political business on his vacation planner, including an appearance at the Utah Republican Party's organizing convention and a meeting with wildfire officials in Idaho.