George W Bush returns to the White House on Thursday for the unveiling of his official portrait. But where has the lesser-spotted 43rd President been hiding? Jon Swaine visited Dallas to find out more.
Some confidantes hope George W Bush will edge back into the spotlight with a book, to be published in July, outlining a plan to boost economic growth
When Chad Draper finished eating at a fish-fry in his grandmother's garden in suburban Dallas earlier this year, he took a walk with some of the friends and relatives he would soon be leaving for Afghanistan.
As they reached number 10141 in the neatly kept cul-de-sac in Preston Hollow, Private Draper paused to glance at the home of the man who, a decade earlier, started the war he was about to join. And George W. Bush looked back.
Spotting Pvt. Draper's uniform, Mr Bush came outside and threw an arm around the 26-year-old Army Pathfinder for a photograph. "Thank you for your service," he said, wishing him well for his tour.
It was a typically gregarious gesture from the 65-year-old neighbour who exchanges emails with Jacob King, 17 and mired in school exams, and who telephoned Patrick Bibb, 22, to thank him for putting up supportive banners. "He always stops to wave," said Mollye Vilbig, 87.
Yet on Thursday Mr Bush returns to the White House to unveil his official portrait as the quiet man of US politics – the lesser-spotted 43rd president, whose decisions on war, tax and spending loom gigantic over everyday life in America even as he remains absent from this year's campaign for the job he held for eight years.
The visit, only his second since leaving office 40 months ago with a record-low 22 per cent approval rating, threatens to remind voters of even unhappier times, tarnishing Mitt Romney's triumph of finally reaching the 1,144 delegates required to clinch the Republican nomination to face Barack Obama in November.
While endorsements from other big beasts such as John McCain have come amid much fanfare, Mr Bush's own long-awaited nod earlier this month took the form of just four words – "I'm for Mitt Romney" – shouted to a reporter through a closing lift door.
His silence contrasts sharply with his predecessor, Bill Clinton, who is already campaigning energetically for Mr Obama, and even with his relatively quiet father, George H.W. Bush, who posed for photographs with Mr Romney before promising to have a word with his eldest son.
The younger Bush insists that he is staying above the fray out of respect for his successor. Yet as Mr Obama pleads that he inherited a "mess" and is still trying to clear it up, former Bush advisers concede that focus on their man also poses headaches for Mr Romney, who should instead look to the future.
"I think people would agree with Obama that he was left with a mess," John Bolton, Mr Bush's UN ambassador, told The Daily Telegraph. "They're not arguing about that, and that's why it doesn't pay for Romney to argue whether it was a big mess or a little mess."
A recent CNN poll found 56 per cent of voters continued to blame Mr Bush and the Republicans for the country's ongoing economic woe, while only 29 per cent blamed Mr Obama and the Democrats. Only Richard Nixon ranked lower than Mr Bush in a Gallup poll on the last eight presidents earlier this year.
Things looks bleak. "There are a couple of kinds of events out there that would I think elevate his standing, but those are events that none of us would ever want to see," said Tony Fratto, a White House aide to Mr Bush. "If there were another terrorist act, and I don't even want to speculate on that, there are those out there who would make the case that after 9/11, he kept the country safe".
Little wonder, then, that Mr Bush and his wife, Laura, instead prefer to divide their time between their 1,600 acre ranch in Crawford and £1.3 million mansion on a Dallas street now locked behind black iron security gates and a Secret Service outpost.
Between publishing his memoir, quietly earning £10 million on the after-dinner circuit and overseeing the building of his £192 million presidential centre and library 18 miles away, Mr Bush enjoys relaxing on the putting green installed on the site of the next-door house, which he promptly bought and had demolished.
He frequently catches up with old friends living nearby, such as Harold Simmons, a titanium tycoon who recently opened a 1,300 acre radioactive waste dump in west Texas, and Tom Hicks, the sports franchise billionaire whose ownership almost destroyed Liverpool FC.
While Mrs Bush hosts barbecues and receives standing ovations at the local shopping mall, Mr Bush emails former aides from a new iPad, friends said. The couple enjoy crabmeat soufflés at the nearby Rise No.1 restaurant, where Mr Bush received the call from Mr Obama to say that Osama bin Laden was dead.
By all accounts, he does not miss the cut-and-thrust of a city he stayed away from for a full third of his presidency. "I actually found my freedom by leaving Washington," he said during a speech earlier this month.
Such is his detachment that a wall of memorable photographs inside the house is said to contain no pictures of Mr Bush with world leaders, but does include one with Siegfried and Roy, the Las Vegas entertainers renowned for their white tigers.
Some confidantes hope Mr Bush will edge back into the spotlight with a book, to be published in July, outlining a plan to boost economic growth. Others point beyond this election campaign to the opening of his presidential centre, in July next year, as his moment to return.
"I wish he could be more outspoken on the issues he cares about," said Bob Fu, a friend and leading Chinese-American dissident, who helped launch Mr Bush's Freedom Collection, a little-noticed website aiming to promote freedom and democracy worldwide. "He has the microphone, and certainly has the compassion," said Mr Fu. "He said he will. He told me he will do more in the near future".
But for now "he recognises that it's somebody else's turn," said Andrew Card, his former White House chief of staff. "He's going to do everything he can to make it about the future of the country, not about the past." Which may mean a lot more time spent in Texas yet.