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One Minute from Abnormal – Published by Salon.com

Early in the presidential campaign, Bush and his entourage were in New York City 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 11:00 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 explained.  “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, Karen 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 Mr. Bush.  His career goals and political ideology have been so inculcated into Hughes’ consciousness that she might not be able to any longer discern between her own thinking and the president’s.  Obviously, that 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 there was any indication of a radio frequency bouncing between the brains of Bush and Hughes was during the governor’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 shining brass railing rimming the chamber’s floor. 

“Look at Karen,” I said while nudging a colleague.

“Oh my god.  You’ve got to be kidding me.”

As Governor 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 their child stood dumbstruck on stage.

“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 speaking 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 air waves and in the newspapers, Hughes’ talents in message development are often overlooked.  In the South Carolina primary campaign against 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 our signs all over South Carolina: A Reformer with Results.  We just stole McCain’s message, refined it, and it worked.  That was all Karen.”

Having worked around Karen Hughes from the time she was an energetic reporter at KXAS-TV in Fort Worth, even if I had been watching her with nothing more than peripheral vision, it is difficult for me to avoid the conclusion there is something almost pathological about her adopted devotion to George W. Bush.  She was a solid television political correspondent with serviceable prose and production skills.  But she is driven as a counselor and communicator for the president in a manner that never manifested itself in her journalism.  Whatever the reality that gets manufactured by her, Rove, and Bush, Hughes believes in that more than the reality of all contradictory external information.  God help, however, any journalist or analyst whose interpretation and reportage of facts varies with her version of events.

Bush’s only courageous political act of his career provides a case study of Karen 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 Karl Rove did not like, was to ask the business community to pay more to fund public education.  Predictably, corporate lobbyists and CEOs handed the neophyte governor his political head over the proposal.  He had tried to raise taxes on aviation fuel, lawyers, architects, and countless other professional endeavors.

“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 of everyone who filed for the exemption.  This was a political shell game, a foreshadowing of how the Bush administration was to run the federal government.  Hughes and Rove knew that the $3 billion dollar tax cut resulting from the increased exemption had to be replaced by local school districts.  Public education could not live without the money.  Texas school districts had to raise taxes to make up for the loss.  But Bush, conveniently, did not get the blame.

In Nashua, New Hampshire, this artful dodge almost fell to pieces.  As reporters on the Bush 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 printed 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.

“Okay, 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 pre-emptive political attacks on opponents and journalists as she was with tactical defense.  I found this out in 1994 as a panelist on a statewide broadcast debate between George W. Bush and 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 Mr. 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 delusion that Hughes might grow more independent with her much publicized return home.  In fact, that decision is often viewed cynically by Democrats who 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 is 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 appeared to need Karen Hughes’ approval.  That represents a kind of meaningless endorsement since she clearly thinks he can do no wrong.     

Inevitably, either discomfort or romance arises from this kind of co-dependency.  While Bush was running for president and the miles and days clicked off on the campaign, the candidate and his word worker were inseparable.  Karen Hughes was framed in almost every photo of the candidate.  On each flight to the next venue, she was sitting next to him, leaning in talking, confiding, and counseling.  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 out 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 the increased profile of the candidate’s wife on the trail, Laura Bush, was probably a part of the same communications process.
As a former journalist, Karen 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 supposed to be like Bush’s. 

Carlson, a floppy-haired antagonist of progressives, wasn’t expected to be hard on Karen’s man.  In fact, in an interview with Salon.com, the CNN host said his wife was worried that his story might appear to be “sucking up.”  Bush, knowing Carlson’s political predispositions, lifted the shades hiding his true beliefs and offered a clearer view of himself to the reporter.  Carlson’s report described how Bush swore freely and mocked condemned death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker.  He told Salon.com that he was astonished by how Karen Hughes responded to the 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, Bush communications director] 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 is losing 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, crowds are cheering him as a savior, and the national anthem is the soundtrack.  This is considerably more than a political skill.  It’s a bit of a psychological tick.  Even when confronted with a videotape or a transcript contradicting her recall, Karen 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.  And then 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 interview 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 unalienable 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 taken the war on terrorism and used an analogy that practically put pro-choice supporters in an al-Qaeda training camp, saying evening prayers with Osama.

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

She did, though, and tens of thousands of people have signed an on-line petition demanding she issue an apology.  Unfortunately, she is no more forthcoming with requests for forgiveness than is her president. 

It is a difficult judgment to make; calling someone a liar when they truly believe what they are saying.  Karen Hughes, though, has often said things that are not true.  Turning a series of stump speeches into a book, Hughes wrote in Bushes’ A Charge to Keep that he “continued flying with his National Guard unit for many years.”  Bush and Hughes both knew that was not true, and documents they released proved the opposite.  Bush probably privately acknowledges this distortion but Karen can be expected to believe the version she wrote is unfailingly accurate.  Not surprisingly, her romanticized version of George W. Bush is a man who, in her constructs, doesn’t even curse.  Although the former Texas governor was known to launch an occasional F-bomb around male reporters, Hughes claims not once to have heard him swear.

As the war on terrorism has spiraled into chaos, Hughes has begun testifying about her religion in public forums.  It’s impossible to tell if she is seeking solace in her faith or trying to convince Americans that god, the Bush version of a deity, is on our side.  Unfortunately, the U.S. soldiers are no less dead than the Iraqi insurgents and al Qaeda who claim Allah is directing them in the same way the Christian god is guiding the Bush administration.  Neither Jesus nor Mohammad ever spoke to the concept of killing to achieve political ends, though.  One assumes, in her private moments, Hughes and her president seek forgiveness from their creator.  But she and her president inhabit a remote, unexplored location. 
In this carefully rendered world where Karen Hughes lives, the WMDs 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 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 Karen, life is returning to normal in Iraq and the terror is diminishing and the casualties of Americans and Iraqis are not that significant.  It’s a happy place with no global warming; 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 Mr. 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 geo-political mistake ever made by any American president, she will be there disputing their interpretations. 

Karen Hughes will always believe.