MIDLAND, Texas _ George W. Bush returned Tuesday to a West Texas welcome, declaring himself happy to be back as a private citizen after eight rocky and eventful years as president.
"I'm coming home with my head held high and a sense of accomplishment," Bush told a crowd of several thousand that jammed Centennial Plaza.
"Even among the most difficult days of my presidency, I was always optimistic about the future."
Bush leaves office among the most unpopular presidents in history. But here in his staunchly Republican boyhood hometown, a sea well-wishers turned out to cheer his return.
The rally marked a bookend of his pre- and post-presidency. Eight years ago, he attended a final sendoff from the same town square before leaving the state for his own inauguration.
Tuesday, after watching Barack Obama's swearing-in as the new commander in chief, Bush returned aboard the blue-and-gold Boeing 747 that carried him around the world as president. Before touching down, the jumbo jet flew low over the Midland crowd, glinting in a late-day sun.
On stage, Gov. Rick Perry revved the audience by praising Bush as a Texan who faced big challenges.
"We stood by this president during some of the darkest days the United States of America has been through," Perry said. "George Bush understood something _ we've got to be strong militarily. If people strike America, we strike back."
The Midland High and Robert E. Lee High School bands played, the Gatlin Brothers and Lee Greenwood sang and the thousands jamming the plaza waved Texas flags and cardboard W's distributed by rally organizers.
Bush called it "a great day for the Bush family. We are back in the state of Texas and we are here to stay."
Afterwards, he and wife Laura flew to their Crawford ranch for the evening. The Bushes will divide their time between the ranch and their new home in Preston Hollow.
"We're very proud of him," said Kenneth Reynolds of Midland. "He's done an outstanding job for the economy here in West Texas. And I don't think he had anything to do with the economy problem. I think it was other people."
Republican state Rep. Doug Miller, who flew from New Braunfels, said: "Obviously, everybody has challenges he has to deal with. But he has kept our country safe."
Bush's approval ratings have dipped into the 20s. The Iraq war has gone badly. The economy is in collapse. Hyper-partisanship has poisoned the politics in Washington he once pledged to fix and his political party is at a low ebb.
There will be a memoir, a library on the SMU campus, and an active effort by Bush loyalists to repaint his legacy in more favorable terms
As a measure of the difficulty, former White House strategist Karl Rove recently appeared before a liberal audience in New York to debate the group's proposition that "Bush 43 is the worst president in the last 50 years."
John J. Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, said Bush's legacy "looks pretty dubious" after eight years in office, especially the decision to go into Iraq.
"But 20-30 years from now, when diplomatic files are available and we see how it played out on the international chess board, maybe it will have turned out to be the right thing," Pitney said. "I don't know."
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Back home, even bipartisan backers who worked with him in Austin give mixed reviews.
"In Texas, the approach was personal, face to face, less ideological and more about results," said former Democratic Rep. Paul Sadler. "Once they got to Washington, it seemed it was just the opposite.
"Everything appeared to be viewed through the prism of the next race, the next campaign," he said. "He either would not or could not carry that bipartisanship into our nation's capital."
Bush has offered relatively few regrets and spent his final weeks in office defending his administration's performance.
Tuesday, the man elevated into the job as governor when Bush became president recalled how Bush urged him to keep the state in good shape for his return.
"He looked me in the eye before he left and said, 'Perry, I want you to be a good Boy Scout. And Boy Scouts leave their camp better than they found it," Perry said. "Texas is a better place than when George left it."
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.