Sitting Pretty

She is the perfect image of a United States senator—until she loses her cool. Then you see the real Kay Bailey Hutchison, the one who says, “I’ve had to fight for everything I get.”

“I just work hard,” Kay Bailey Hutchinson said as we ran up the seven flights of stairs to her Senate office. “Like most women, the way I’ve gotten ahead is by working harder than most men are willing to work.”

Taking the stairs—as opposed to the waiting elevator that is reserved for senators—is not just a way that Hutchison keeps in physical shape. It is a mental exercise as well, a way of reaffirming to herself that she is still pressing forward at top speed. To spend time with Hutchison in Washington is to see a woman in frantic motion. On this day, like all days, she was up at six in the morning for a three-mile walk. This afternoon, she will shun the subway to the Capitol, striding through the mile and a quarter of tunnels so rapidly that West Virginia senator Jay Rockefeller, a self-professed exercise nut, says that Hutchison is the only senator who can keep up his pace. Tonight she will return to the office at nine to work several hours more. The media may describe her as the Breck Girl, someone whose fresh face propelled her to a stunning two-to-one victory in last year’s special election to the United States Senate and helped her survive felony charges of ethical wrongdoing, but that is not at all how Kay Hutchison sees herself. She has waged a lifelong struggle against her own imperfections, starting with the time as a child when she realized that she wasn’t as pretty as her best friends. She summed it up at our initial meeting: “I’m a perfectionist.”

This intense personal drive, which she regards as the foundation of her success, is also her greatest political obstacle. During her recent legal battle over her conduct as state treasurer, Hutchison’s personality became as much of an issue as her actions. In sworn testimony her former aides described incidents in which she had hit and pinched members of her executive staff. The right wing of her own Republican party has never considered her their kind of woman—she even was the target of some boos at the GOP state convention in June. She is a professional woman, a lawyer. She has no children. She doesn’t toe the conservative line on issues like abortion. She talks about how women have to work harder than men in order to succeed. To the conservatives of the religious right, this makes Kay Bailey Hutchison a feminist.

“I’m not a feminist,” said Hutchison, as we reached the fifth floor. She wasn’t even panting. “For one thing, I don’t automatically think women have to do the same jobs as men. I voted for tax breaks for homemakers, and I don’t support quotas for women or minorities.”

The conventional wisdom today is that women have an advantage in politics, and they do. Hutchison won the votes of Democratic women in routing Bob Krueger, just as Ann Richards won the votes of Republican women in defeating Clayton Williams. But women—especially Republican women in the age of family values—also have a disadvantage. They are vulnerable to an old double standard that transcends politics: Men can be tough; women should be nice. Ann Richards wraps her toughness in humor. Hutchison wraps hers in sorority-girl femininity. Chanel is her favorite designer, apricot her favorite color, root beer floats her favorite extravagance. She strives to maintain the image of being successful but not threatening, though there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Her political style might be called the politics of pretty.

The impulse to be smart but nice has also framed her public role in Washington. The first time she ate in the senators’ dining room, she was appalled that Democrats and Republicans sat at different tables, and she played the conventional feminine role of going out of her way to sit with Democrats, like any polite Texas hostess would. At times she seems to relish the advantages of femininity. One afternoon during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Congressman Jack Brooks, an old-school Democrat from Beaumont, showed up to introduce Hutchison as the “pretty senator from Texas.” She beamed. When I asked her after our dash up the stairs how she felt about the pretty-gal comment, Hutchison said, “I would never waste time being offended by anything so trivial.”

She was sitting in a blue chair with her legs crossed at the ankles, looking diminutive in the vastness of her Senate office. Behind her was a sepia photograph of Thomas J. Rusk, the first senator from Texas to hold the seat Hutchison now occupies. Rusk was the best friend and law partner of Charles S. Taylor of Nacogdoches, her great-great-great-great grandfather, and the photo—one of the few personal items in her office—suggested the fulfillment of an ancient destiny.

Like a good soldier, Hutchison votes the standard Republican line on most issues. Term limits? She supports them. She also supports a line-item veto for the president and a balanced-budget amendment. She opposes most of president Clinton’s congressional agenda, including heath care reform. She joins in GOP assaults on the administration. I saw her speak against the doomed confirmation of sixties activist Sam Brown as ambassador to a European security conference. Other Republican senators had already made the case that Brown should be disqualified because of his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. Hutchison brandished a seventeen-year-old interview that Brown had given to Penthouse magazine and read a portion in which he had said, “I take second place to no one in my hatred of the intelligence agencies.”

“I think this is radical,” Hutchison said.

On the Democratic side of the aisle, John Kerry of Massachusetts, who was handling Brown’s appointment for the White House, jumped to his feet. “I ask the senator from Texas to yield. What exactly does ‘radical’ mean?”

“Well,” said Hutchison, “I think that quote is radical.” Open confrontation with a colleague is not part of the politics of pretty.

Hutchison’s nonconfrontational style is very different from the approach of Texas’ other

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