According to my son’s high school government textbook, five factors influence how people vote: personal background, loyalty to a political party, issues, image of the candidates, and—you’ll never guess. “Propaganda,” the book says, employing a term usually associated with totalitarian systems. It’s a sad day when textbook authors are more cynical than politicians. Yet, by whatever name you call it—practitioners prefer “message”; pundits like “spin”—there is no denying its importance. The ability to define what’s at stake is the essential art of modern politics. Look at the list in the textbook: Each of the other four influences on voters lies in some stage of dormancy until brought to life by messages.
In recent weeks two message masters have made the headlines. One was Karen Hughes, the longtime confidant and adviser of George W. Bush, who announced that she will leave her White House job as counselor to the president and return, for the time being, to Texas and private life. The second was David Beckwith, a veteran Republican operative who is currently working for Attorney General John Cornyn’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. In a reference to the Democratic slate, which is headed by an African American, former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, who is Cornyn’s opponent, and a Hispanic, gubernatorial nominee Tony Sanchez, a Laredo banker and oilman, Beckwith said, “This ‘dream ticket’ is cynical. It is based on a racial-quota system. In the end, it will not work because most people vote on issues and philosophy, not on race.” Cornyn, choosing a word forevermore tainted with irony by Claude Rains in Casablanca, pronounced himself “shocked” by Beckwith’s comment. Both incidents are highly revealing, in different ways, of the state of political communication today.
At 45, Hughes has been described as the most powerful woman (presidential spouses excepted) in the history of American politics, so it was inevitable that skepticism greeted her stated reason for leaving: family. She and her husband, Jerry, have a fifteen-year-old son, and all of them, she said, were “a little homesick” for Texas. Hughes’s concerns, however, are nothing new; they go back at least three years, to early 1999, before Bush was an announced candidate for president. She told me in an interview that year