One minute from abnormal

A Texas reporter explores Karen Hughes' cultlike devotion to George W. Bush.

By James C. Moore

Published May 13, 2004 10:05PM (EDT)

No one saw Karen Hughes' transcendent moment with George W. Bush. Possibly, she had already crossed over from being his communications consultant to being his confidant. None of us on the outside had any way of knowing until a brief, late-night phone call. While he was governor of Texas, Hughes was the interface between Bush and journalists. But she was already working her relationship with Bush, making every effort to evolve it into something beyond the daily grind with reporters.

Early in the presidential campaign, Bush and his entourage were in New York for a speech and bus tour. A reporter for a major daily newspaper, who arrived late because of airline delays, was without a schedule and logistical information for the subsequent day's events.

"I guess I got in about 11 p.m.," he said. "I called Karen in her room, sort of worried that I might be waking her up. I was very polite. I said, 'Karen, I was wondering if you could give me the schedule, etc. for reporters for tomorrow.'"

"I don't do press," Hughes said.

"And then she hung up on me," the reporter said. "All I could think was she must be big stuff now. She could have at least been polite. She didn't even bother to tell me who I was supposed to call."

Actually, Hughes had become unsettlingly close to her boss long before journalism or outsiders began to take note. In fact, her worst critics have accused the presidential counselor of living almost vicariously through Bush. His goals and political ideology have been so inculcated into Hughes' consciousness that she may no longer be able discern between her own thinking and the president's. This undoubtedly is an odd characterization to make of two of the world's most powerful adults. There is, however, no shortage of evidence to prompt the speculation.

The first time I noticed an indication of a radio frequency bouncing between the brains of Bush and Hughes was during Gov. Bush's initial State of the State speech in Texas. Still a simple press hack, Hughes did not take to the riser in the Texas House of Representatives, instead standing off to the side, behind the shiny brass railing rimming the chamber's floor.

"Look at Karen," I said, nudging a colleague.

"Oh, my God. You've got to be kidding me."

As Gov. Bush read the text of his speech from a teleprompter, his communications director was silently mouthing the words along with him. The synchronized delivery suggested a parent sitting in the audience of an elementary school pageant while mouthing forgotten lines as her child stood dumbstruck onstage.

"Do you suppose she has any idea how odd that looks?" my friend asked.

"If she does, I don't think she cares. She seems to just want her guy to do well."

In the ensuing years of Bush's political development, Hughes was spotted many times as she pursed her lips and moved her jaws to each word her employer was stammering in the front of the room. After a while, those of us in the traveling press corps became so accustomed to her mannerisms that we were no longer amazed.

Hughes, of course, was more than just the candidate's remote-control device. Her portfolio included creating the messages and sound bites -- turning the phrases Bush was later very likely to overturn when he tried to articulate them in public. Hughes' great skill as a political advisor is that she is both intuitive and analytical. While her relentlessness with message delivery is all over the airwaves and in the newspapers, people often overlook Hughes' talents in message development. In the South Carolina primary campaign against presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, as Bush strategist Karl Rove deployed what Sen. Max Cleland called a "slime and defend" strategy, it was Hughes who gave the Bush team an effective communications template.

"McCain clearly kicked our butts in New Hampshire," a Bush campaign source told me. "His message of reform immediately took off. And then Karen said, 'Hey, we're the reformers here. We're reformers with results.' That's what we ended up having on all of the signs all over South Carolina: 'A Reformer With Results.' We just stole McCain's message, refined it, and it worked. That was all Karen."

I have worked around Hughes from the time she was an energetic reporter at KXAS-TV in Dallas/Fort Worth, and even if I had been watching her with nothing more than peripheral vision, I cannot avoid concluding that there is something almost pathological about her almost born-again devotion to Bush. She was a solid TV political correspondent with serviceable prose and production skills. But as a counselor and communicator for the president, she is driven in a manner that never manifested itself in her journalism. Whatever reality she, Rove and Bush choose to manufacture, Hughes believes in it more than the reality of any and all contradictory external information. And God help any journalist or analyst whose interpretation or reportage of facts varies with her version of events.

Bush's only courageous political act of his career provides a case study of Hughes and message discipline. During his first year as governor of Texas, Bush elected to deal with a property-tax crisis for homeowners by spreading the tax burden across the broader business community. His idea, which Rove did not like, was to ask the business community to pay more to fund public education. Bush tried to raise taxes on aviation fuel, lawyers, architects and countless other professional endeavors. Predictably, corporate lobbyists and CEOs handed the neophyte governor his political head over the proposal.

"I'll never try anything like that again unless people are standing on the Capitol lawn by the thousands," Bush told me at the time.

Rove had a better idea, and Hughes knew she could sell it to voters and lobbyists. The governor pushed a piece of legislation to increase the homestead exemption for Texas homeowners, reducing the taxable assessed valuation for every homeowner who filed for the exemption. This was a political shell game, a foreshadowing of how the Bush administration would run the federal government. Hughes and Rove knew that the funds lost from the $3 billion tax cut resulting from the increased exemption had to be replaced by local school districts. Public education could not live without the money, and Texas school districts had to raise taxes to make up for the loss. But Bush, conveniently, did not get the blame.

In Nashua, N.H., this artful dodge almost fell to pieces. As reporters on Bush's presidential campaign were gathering for a news conference, Steve Forbes' supporters were handing out pamphlets listing all of the businesses Bush had tried to increase taxes on before he settled on the homestead exemption as a political accomplishment. Frank Bruni of the New York Times approached me with the list.

"Is this true?" he asked.

I scanned the proposed taxes. "Yeah, looks accurate to me."

Bruni's eyes swept the room searching for Hughes and found her leaning against a rear wall as Bush spoke. I drifted over close enough to hear their conversation.

"Karen," Bruni asked, "did the governor really try to raise taxes on all of these businesses?"

Hughes looked at the Forbes materials.

"Frank, Governor Bush is responsible for the largest single tax cut in Texas history at 3 billion dollars."

"I know," Bruni said. "I've heard that a lot. But did he try to increase taxes on these companies before he cut them with the homestead exemption?"

"As I said, Frank, Governor Bush made history with the largest tax cut ever recorded in Texas."

Bruni, frustrated, looked in my direction briefly.

"OK, I'll ask you again: Did Governor Bush try to raise taxes on the companies listed on this document?"

Unflagging, Hughes stuck with her message, almost verbatim, and Bruni shrugged his shoulders and walked off. He had been worn out by the message discipline of the High Prophet, the nickname Bush had given her as a derivative of her married name of Karen Parfitt Hughes.

She was as capable at preemptive political attacks on opponents and journalists as she was with tactical defense. I found this out in 1994 as a panelist on a debate broadcast statewide between Bush and his gubernatorial opponent, Ann Richards. Having come of age during the Vietnam War, I thought I would ask Bush how he managed to get into the Texas Air National Guard when most waiting lists were years long. Only seconds after the red tally lights had gone out on the cameras, Hughes was looming in front of me, acting as if I owed her an explanation for my question.

"What was that all about, Jim? I don't see what that has to do with being governor. That was just an absurd question. Why'd you ask such a thing?"

"His behavior during that time is relevant, Karen. It's about character. You know that."

"No, I don't. He's not asking to run the federal government. He wants to be governor of Texas. He's not going to declare war on Mexico."

Initially, I thought she was trying to playfully badger me. But her face was dark and her mouth and eyes had hardened at the edges.

"Look, Karen, I lost friends in Vietnam. I had a right and an obligation to ask him about what he did back then."

When I turned and left the stage, she followed me, insistently repeating her assertions. Political reporters told me the next day that Hughes had spent some time at the hotel bar that night ridiculing my choice of questions to Bush. Nothing has changed since then about Hughes and her devotion to the president -- except for the degree of her obsessive connection to him.

No one in Austin had any illusion that Hughes might grow more independent with her much-publicized return home two years ago. In fact, that decision is often viewed cynically by Democrats, some of whom accuse her of making a marketing rather than a personal decision. By walking away from an office in the White House, Hughes became an "Oprah" topic: Possibly History's Most Powerful Female Not Married to a President Abandons Post for Sake of Family. She didn't really walk away, though. Her husband and son changed their mailing addresses by returning to Austin, but Hughes has been incessantly in Washington or on the road promoting her expansive love note to her president, "Ten Minutes From Normal." Bush reportedly speaks with her every day, at least once, no matter where Hughes is traveling. In Texas, one lobbyist who had worked closely with the governor and his "governess" suggested that Bush appears to need Hughes' approval. That represents a meaningless endorsement, since she clearly thinks he can do no wrong.

Inevitably, either discomfort or romance arises from this kind of codependency. While Bush was running for president and the miles and days clicked off on the campaign trail, the candidate and his word worker were inseparable. Hughes appeared in almost every photo of the candidate. On each flight to the next venue, she sat next to him, leaning in to talk, confide and counsel. This kind of intimacy might lead lesser adults into precarious territory. Bush and Hughes, however, were oblivious to the growing perception among the traveling press entourage that they were more than just friends and political confederates. When someone finally advised them of how their kinship might be misinterpreted, the campaign responded with an odd maneuver. Hughes brought her son onto the campaign jet and home-schooled him out on the hustings.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for him," she told reporters. "He wants to go everywhere I go."

The press corps suspected, though, that Hughes' son's arrival on the plane was a direct message to us and the wider world that there was no hanky-panky between her and the boss man. The fact that this development coincided with an increased profile in the campaign by Laura Bush was probably a part of the same communications strategy.

Despite her former career as a journalist, Hughes has cultivated an absurd, counterintuitive notion that she can either control or strongly influence what is reported. Of course, she ought to know better, but this does not preclude her from persistently trying to write stories for reporters. She relaxed -- momentarily -- when conservative writer and commentator Tucker Carlson came to Austin to interview Bush. The piece Carlson filed for the now defunct Talk magazine was not what she had anticipated from someone whose politics were expected to be like Bush's.

Carlson, a floppy-haired antagonist of progressives, wasn't supposed to be hard on Karen's man. In fact, in an interview with Salon last year, the CNN host said his wife was worried that his story might appear to be "sucking up." Bush, knowing Carlson's political predisposition, lifted the shades hiding his true beliefs and offered a clearer view of himself to the reporter. Carlson's story described how Bush swore freely and mocked condemned death-row inmate Karla Faye Tucker. He told Salon that he was astonished by how Hughes responded to his article in Talk.

"It was very, very hostile," Carlson said. "The reaction was: You betrayed us. Well, I was never there as a partisan to begin with. Then I heard that [on the campaign bus], Karen Hughes accused me of lying. And so I called Karen and asked her why she was saying this, and she had this almost Orwellian rap that she laid on me about how things she'd heard -- that I watched her hear -- she in fact had never heard, and she'd never heard Bush use profanity ever. It was insane. I've obviously been lied to a lot by campaign operatives, but the striking thing about the way she lied was she knew I knew she was lying, and she did it anyway. There is no word in English that captures that. It almost crosses over from bravado into mental illness."

When cornered, Hughes dissembles. But she is rarely cornered. Nonetheless, she seems to have lost her ability to distinguish between the real world and the red, white and blue movie playing on a loop in her head; it's a drama where "W" is the hero and crowds are cheering him as a savior while the national anthem plays as the soundtrack. This is considerably more than a political skill. It's more of a serious psychological tic. Even when confronted with a videotape or a transcript contradicting her recall, Hughes still finds denial a viable political tool.

During an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Hughes appeared to compare pro-choice supporters to terrorists, then later denied precisely what she had said.

"And President Bush has worked to say, let's be reasonable, let's work to value life, let's try to reduce the number of abortions, let's increase adoptions," she told Blitzer. "And I think those are the kind of policies that the American people can support, particularly at a time when we're facing an enemy, and really the fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life. It's the founding conviction of our country, that we're endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, the right to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately our enemies in the terror network, as we're seeing repeatedly in the headlines these days, don't value any life, not even the innocent and not even their own."

Rarely good with a follow-up, Blitzer let this rank assertion slip past unchallenged. The Washington Post, however, held Hughes' nose to her own words. Regardless, she still was unable to see how she had used the war on terrorism in an analogy that practically put pro-choice supporters in an al-Qaida training camp saying evening prayers with Osama bin Laden.

"That is a gross distortion and I would never make such a comparison," Hughes told the Post.

She did, however -- and tens of thousands of people have signed an online petition demanding that she issue an apology. Unfortunately, she is no more forthcoming with requests for forgiveness than the president is.

It is a difficult judgment to make, calling someone a liar when they truly believe what they are saying. Hughes, though, has often said things that are not true. Turning a series of Bush's stump speeches into a book, Hughes wrote in Bush's "A Charge to Keep: My Journey to the White House" that he "continued flying with his National Guard unit for many years." Bush and Hughes both knew that was not true, and documents the White House released in March proved the opposite. Bush probably privately acknowledges this distortion, but Hughes likely believes the version she fabricated is unfailingly accurate. Although the former Texas governor was known to launch an occasional F-bomb around male reporters, not surprisingly, her romanticized version of Bush is a man who doesn't even curse.

As the war on terrorism has spiraled into chaos, Hughes has begun testifying about her religion in public forums, such as in a recent speech in Austin. It's impossible to tell if she is seeking solace in her faith or trying to convince Americans that God is on our side. Unfortunately, the U.S. soldiers who are theoretically being guided by the Bush administration's Christian God are no less dead than the Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaida terrorists who believe Allah is directing them to destroy the American infidels. Neither Jesus nor Muhammad ever spoke to the concept of killing to achieve political ends, though. One assumes, in her private moments, that Hughes and the president seek forgiveness from their Creator. But they inhabit a remote, unexplored location.

In the carefully rendered world where Hughes lives, the weapons of mass destruction are not missing; they have only to be discovered. Terrorists hate freedom and liberty and equality, instead of hating Americans. A man who won a Silver Star for shedding blood for his country needs to explain himself, while a young lieutenant who skipped out on an officer's commission and a coveted pilot's slot has "served honorably." On Planet Hughes, life is returning to normal in Iraq, the horrors are diminishing and the casualties of Americans and Iraqis are not that significant. It's a happy place where presidents never make mistakes and there is never anything to be sorry about. One can almost see her in the back of the room, her mouth rounded with expression and secretly moving in unison with the president as he speaks the words "Donald Rumsfeld is a superb secretary of defense."

After all of the troops have come home, a powerful cleric is ruling Iraq with a theocratic government and Bush has been retired to his ranch by an angry electorate, the president's closest friend will be undaunted. Years from now, when historians begin to insist that Iraq was the greatest geopolitical mistake ever made by an American president, she will be there disputing their interpretations.

Karen Hughes will always believe.

James C. Moore

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Al-qaida Donald Rumsfeld George W. Bush Karl Rove Texas Tucker Carlson