Back in the spotlight
Adviser Karen Hughes gives Bush timely lift with admiring memoir
By James Carney
WASHINGTON -- On a recent day at the airport in Austin, Texas, a tall woman with a familiar face was standing alone, waiting to catch a plane, when a man strode purposefully across the terminal and started talking to her.
She did not know the man, she says, recounting the story, but he knew her --knew, at least, what she had once been -- and he had something urgent to say. "You've spent enough time with your family now," the stranger, earnest and friendly, told Karen Hughes. "They need you back at the White House."
The man's words echo a Republican lament heard each time the Bush White House has faltered and the President's poll numbers have slipped since the summer of 2002.
That was when Hughes did the unimaginable in Washington by resigning as the President's closest adviser so she could move her unhappy family back home to Austin.
She has continued to advise the President on an ad hoc, part-time basis. Now she has begun a gradual re-entry into the whirlwind of full-time presidential politics. Her first conspicuous move is the launch this week of Ten Minutes from Normal, a memoir of a decade spent as George W. Bush's spokeswoman and alter ego.
For the White House, the blitz of publicity accompanying the book's publication couldn't come at a better time.
Bush aides are counting on Hughes' hagiographic portrait of the President as a near flawless leader in turbulent times to serve as an antidote to the searing criticism in the recent book by Bush's former counterterrorism czar, Richard Clarke, or the one that former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill produced with journalist Ron Suskind.
Readers looking for West Wing intrigue will be disappointed by the Hughes book; when the subject is the President or Hughes' colleagues in the Administration, Ten Minutes from Normal is all kiss and no tell.
Bush is presented as "humble," "wonderful," "tough-minded," "decent and thoughtful," with a "laserlike ability to distill an issue to its core" and "a knack for provoking discussion."
Even his tendency to mangle words is a sign, to Hughes, of a "highly intelligent" mind outpacing a sluggish tongue.
Occasionally and this is as critical as it gets her boss can be "impatient" and "challenging." But the author insists that the man in her book is the man she knows.
"Here's someone who's worked for the President for 10 years," Hughes told TIME last week, "who has seen him in almost every possible situation and who thinks more highly of him today than she did when she first went to work for him. And that's pretty incredible."
A former White House colleague observes, "She just doesn't see his downsides. It's not spin with her. Her admiration for him is total."
On the 2000 campaign trail and in the White House, Hughes earned a reputation for being tirelessly, and sometimes tiresomely, on message. Her refusal to acknowledge any flaw, mistake or internal dispute alienated reporters so much that at one point in the 2000 race Hughes offered to quit.
"The press doesn't like me," she told Bush. "I don't play their game. That can't be good for your campaign." Bush turned her down, of course, out of loyalty and a conviction that message discipline trumps a sated press corps any day.
At the same time, Hughes is known for being one of the few aides in Bush's inner circle who is not afraid to bring the President bad news or tell him he's wrong.
Before she left Washington, it often fell to Hughes to charge "into the propeller," as media adviser Mark McKinnon describes the experience of confronting Bush with an unpleasant topic. That is what some Republicans worry has been lacking since Hughes left Bush's side.
"This wouldn't be happening if Karen were here," a top G.O.P. adviser to the White House groaned during last year's flap over Bush's flight-suited landing on an aircraft carrier to declare the end of "major combat operations" in Iraq.
That example illustrates how Hughes' powers are sometimes exaggerated: she actually helped plan the carrier event and write the President's speech, as she has every major address Bush has delivered since she left Washington. "I was involved," she says. "I'll take the blame, if there is blame."
McKinnon and others argue that she has not needed to attend 10 meetings a day to retain her influence. "She is in his orbit," says McKinnon. "Karen is a constant compass for the President; she's true north."
Other insiders say privately that Hughes did more than shape Bush's message when she was in the White House.
Within a circle of advisers dominated by conservatives, Hughes ended up the de facto moderate on domestic policy. She was the guardian of Bush's "compassionate conservative" image and was constantly pushing to have the President focus and speak out on issues like health care and education.
She pestered him so often about the environment that Bush dubbed her a "lima green bean." His other nicknames for her: High Prophet (a play on her maiden name Parfitt) and Hurricane Karen.
Hughes hints obliquely at this tension in the book. Recalling work on Bush's first speech to Congress, she takes a mild swipe at the G.O.P.'s fixation on tax reduction. "I had worried that the initial drafts of the address had led with the proposed tax cuts," she writes, "the same tax cuts that had propelled us to a resounding 49% victory."
Not that she doesn't support cutting taxes, Hughes explains now, but it's a mistake for Republicans to focus on such a "polarizing issue" while giving short shrift to "other big-picture needs."
Rather than accept being labeled a moderate, Hughes prefers to say she brings "a mom's perspective to the White House, a sense of practicality." When she was on the job full time, says a former West Wing colleague, "you didn't need to focus-group a bunch of soccer moms" to find out how a proposal might play. "All you needed was Karen in the room."
Her real-life soccer-mom credibility is what caused Hughes to pull Bush aside on the South Lawn one morning in April 2002 and declare, "I love you, Mr. President, but I need to move my family home to Texas."
The most compelling passages in her book deal with Hughes' "agonizing tug-of-war between career and family," her devotion to Bush on the one hand and the misery, on the other, that her hours at work were causing her husband Jerry and teenage son Robert.
"I don't like it here; Dad doesn't like it here; even the dog doesn't like it here," Robert complains to his mother one day. "And it's all because of you."
During a family meeting, Hughes frets about her shortcomings as a mother. "Too tired to make brownies," she says. "What does that say about our life?"
And so the most powerful woman in the White House and therefore, arguably, in the world up and quit, instantly becoming a celebrated role model for mothers considering whether to ditch high-powered jobs to spend more time with their kids.
"I have a lot of young women come up to me and ask, 'Can you have a career and a family?'" Hughes says. "My answer is yes, but you have to make choices."
To be sure, not every woman has the choice of giving up the office job only to take up a more a lucrative, self-directed one: her celebrity status made it possible for her to land a hefty book contract and lecture fees of up to $50,000 an appearance.
When her book tour ends this spring, Hughes will become increasingly involved in the campaign because, she says, she owes it to herself and to the President. But she will stay based in Austin until mid-August, when she plans to return to Bush's side for the final election push.
If he wins, some will credit Hughes as a savior. If he loses, others may fault her for leaving, or for returning too late, or just for doing a poor job. She desperately wants the President to win, of course.
But Hughes says she can live with the blame if he doesn't. Either way, she's planning to head back to Austin when it's over.
Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.