A Texas-Size Job
Around the time of Bush's second inauguration last winter, the governor and his press secretary met in his Capitol office. Bush was leaning toward running for president, but was still worrying about the impact a campaign might have on his family. Karen Hughes was worried about her family, too.
The two talked at length about their own values and whether it was possible to conduct a campaign that would not have a destructive effect on their families. Bush wanted to make sure that Hughes would be at his side if he decided to run. "If you're not going, I'm not going," Bush told her, according to another campaign official privy to the conversation.
That's a remarkable statement for a politician to make to a staffer and indicative of the significance of Hughes's role. Bush advisers say that, on a personal basis, Hughes is probably closest to the governor of the three, and they say Bush always seems more confident and relaxed when she is around. "It can't be understood how important she is to the governor," says Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media adviser.
Hughes has a big laugh and an outgoing personality, but she is also the governor's staunchest defender. More than anyone in the campaign, she is always "on message."
"People have either got good instincts and good antennae or they don't," Bush says. "Karen has got good instincts. She can spot a phony a mile away. Her voice is one of reason and honesty. Plus, Karen is someone who knows that it's so important to be proactive as opposed to defensive."
Hughes helps on more than just communications strategy and press relations. When Bush was in the final negotiations with legislative leaders at the end of May over his tax cuts and education spending, Hughes was one of three people he brought to the table. (Joe Allbaugh was another.)
"I think the governor I don't want to put words in his mouth I think he values my advice," Hughes says. "I think he trusts me. I think he likes to get my read on situations, so he frequently involves me in situations like that."
Some Bush supporters, fearing that Hughes's lack of national experience might hurt the presidential campaign, tried to have a more experienced communications director brought in above her earlier in the year. They got nowhere.
Hughes did help recruit Beckwith, a former Time magazine reporter and later press secretary to Vice President Dan Quayle, to be the campaign spokesman in Austin. But last week Beckwith was forced out over what were euphemistically described as "cultural" differences in "style and tone" in dispensing information to the press.
Beckwith had long relationships with many Washington-based reporters and the complaint inside the operation was that he had damaged the campaign's credibility by low-balling the amount of money Bush had raised and been too chatty with reporters. Defenders say he was never disloyal to Bush but simply had a different way of operating than Hughes and others. Asked about his departure, Hughes declined to comment.
Hughes, 42, is an Army brat who was born in Paris. She graduated from high school in Texas and went to college at Southern Methodist University, where she began as an English major with an eye on law school. Then she stumbled into journalism.
At SMU she took a journalism course from Bob Mann, a Democrat who over the years has worked as a press secretary to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and for Garry Mauro, the Democrat who ran against Bush last year. On the first day of class, he handed everyone a slip of paper, each with a different address. The assignment was to go to the address and write a story about what was there.
"Mine was the It'll Do Club," Hughes says. It was a combination truck stop bar and lonelyhearts club. "Let me say in an understated way it was a far different world than anything I'd ever seen or experienced in my world, or certainly at SMU. And I had to write about it and I probably didn't do a very good job. But it stands out very vividly."
Later she found she enjoyed "writing to pictures" more than writing newspaper stories, and eventually pursued a career in television news after graduation. "I was a reporter for about 7½ years and I loved ... every minute of it," she said.
She covered murders, hurricanes and school board and city council meetings. But what she liked best was covering politics. In 1980 she followed the Bush presidential campaign to Iowa and New Hampshire. "What I loved was being live on Election Night at some candidate's headquarters or live when President Bush was elected vice president in Houston."
But in 1984 she made the switch from covering politics to practicing politics, going to work as the Texas press coordinator for the Reagan-Bush campaign. "Obviously that was a big jump," she says. "But I had come to love politics. I had gotten married and I had a new stepdaughter. I remember when I was doing the wedding invitations, I got called and sent to a hurricane. I was driving toward the coast and everybody else was driving the other way. I remember thinking, 'Why am I doing this?' "
After 1984 she continued her political endeavors, doing political PR and helping candidates around Dallas, including Fred Meyer, a Dallas businessman, in his campaign for state chairman. In 1992 she moved to Austin to become executive director of the Texas Republican Party and, along with Karl Rove, a thorn in the side of then-Gov. Ann Richards.
When Meyer decided not to run for reelection as chairman, Hughes moved to Bush's gubernatorial campaign. Over the course of many months on the road with the candidate, they developed a close working relationship.
"When you're together for long days in very high-stress situations, you either end up not liking each other or liking each other a lot, and we ended up liking each other a lot," she says. "He is funny, he is irreverent, he has a great big-picture view of things so he doesn't take himself too seriously. If there's a minor glitch, he has a great sense of humor about letting it roll off."
Bush supporters say Hughes has been irritated with Rove at times when the strategist has revealed campaign news in the media before sharing it with everyone else, but she plays down their differences. "We disagree from time to time," she says. "It's probably more a matter of both being busy. Karl is very smart and I have enormous respect for him. On matters of political strategy, I totally defer to him."
Hughes teaches Sunday school and serves as an elder in her Presbyterian church in Austin. Her husband, Jerry, is an Austin attorney. She has a 12-year-old son and a 25-year-old stepdaughter and prides herself on being a mom as much as being the governor's press secretary. "I am proud that this spring, when we were obviously in a critical legislative session and we were launching the exploratory effort for president, I've been to every one of my son's Little League games except one," she says.
Hughes is the first to admit she has stepped into an enterprise that is likely to be overwhelming at times. "I hope some of the same things that served us well here will serve us well nationally," she says. "But I plead guilty to the fact that we're not nationally experienced political consultants. Now Karl's got quite a bit of experience and Joe has national experience from his days at the RNC. But almost all of my experience has been in Texas.
"I know I don't know a lot," she adds. "I know the governor. I know where he stands. I know his principles and I try to be a pretty effective communicator of what he believes. But I don't make any pretense that I know how to do this nationally."
By Dan Balz, Washington Post Staff Writer
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