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.”

August 1994By Comments

“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 senator, Phil Gramm. This is not by chance. Publicly, she says that she and Gramm are very good friends, but she has positioned herself at a polite distance from him. She has not rushed to encourage his interest in the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, and she has released her joint income tax returns (with husband Ray Hutchison), something Gramm has declined to do. “I approach being a senator as if I were congressman,” she says. “I spend a lot of time and energy on local concerns and constituents’ needs. Phil keeps his eye on the larger issues.” (When I asked her what had given her the most satisfaction as senator, she said, “The lobbying I did to get sixty million dollars in funding for colonias in South Texas.”) Privately, those close to Hutchison acknowledge that the careful separation she maintains from Gramm may reflect the belief of some members of the Hutchison camp that Gramm tried to help Houston congressman Jack Fields in the special Senate election last May. Ambition may also be a factor: Before her legal troubles, Hutchison was mentioned as a possible future vice-presidential candidate, an opportunity that would not exist if another Texan were the GOP nominee.

Notwithstanding what she told me on the stairway about her anti-feminist voting record, women’s issues have been the one area where she has been known to abandon the GOP fold. Hutchison told reporters during the 1993 senatorial campaign, “The choice to have an abortion should be between a woman and her family until viability, with only a few restrictions.” She supports public funding for abortions when the mother’s life is at stake and in cases of rape and incest but believes that minors should not be allowed to have abortions without the consent of their parents. She broke with conservatives as a member of the Armed Services Committee to oppose Clinton’s recommendation that former chief of naval operations Admiral Frank Kelso be allowed to retire with full rank despite his role in the Tailhook sexual harassment scandal. Kelso had attended the Tailhook convention in 1991, where servicewomen were molested and abused, and then presided over the botched investigation. Hutchison was outraged about Tailhook. The weekend before the vote, she had gone home to Dallas and read all 1,400 pages of testimony about his career. “If a majority of Americans knew how bad Tailhook really was, they would not have wanted Admiral Kelso to be rewarded,” said Hutchison. “It just made me sick.” The irony, of course, is that Hutchison herself has been accused of humiliating her subordinates.

“I don’t hit people,” insisted Kay Hutchison, her face uncharacteristically sour. “I don’t pinch people. I don’t yell. And I’m not mean to people.” We were seated at a corner table at the Capital Hill Club, a private retreat for Republicans, talking over her indictment by a Travis County grand jury and the subsequent trail last February. Her face was pinched and her palms closed. The tone of her voice was unquestionably angry. She was trying hard to keep a lid on her fury, which only increased its intensity. Across the table, I slid back into my chair, instinctively cowering under the glare in Hutchison’s eyes. This was no Breck Girl; the woman in front of me now was more like the Terminator.

I thought back to how calm, quiet, and soft-spoken Kay had appeared earlier in the day in her office. Her normal temperament is unobtrusive, gentle, mannerly. The word that comes to mind is “ladylike.” Usually she speaks so softly that on more than one occasion I head members of her staff ask her to repeat instructions. I did sense an undercurrent of tension, as if employees were tiptoeing around her. Yet it was difficult to reconcile this soft boss with the Hutchison I had read about in depositions taken from former staff members at the state treasurer’s office. “Very aggressive,” one employee had called her. “Very demanding.” A former supervisor testified that Hutchison once accused him of having “idiots” working for him. She was also portrayed as a “micromanager” who would “lose it” over trivial mistakes. Hutchison’s defense, she told me, is that, “I don’t demand anything of anyone that I don’t demand of myself.” The trouble is that what she demands of herself is perfection.

The legal case against Hutchison was never as damaging as the personal case. She had been indicted on charges that as state treasurer she had used state employees for personal and political tasks and later destroyed or altered computer records to cover up the evidence. Hutchison and the state Republican party protested that the case was motivated by partisan politics; she and her husband, Dallas bond lawyer and former GOP gubernatorial candidate Ray Hutchison, charged that she was the victim of a Democratic conspiracy. The GOP claimed that Democrats, including Governor Ann Richards, were violating ethic laws as well. Hutchison was acquitted in the case after a bizarre decision by Travis County district attorney Ronnie Earle not to proceed with the prosecution.

In mid-June the Dallas Observer, an alternative newspaper, published an article by reporter Miriam Rozen called “The Case Against Kay.” (The article also appeared in the Houston Press.) Rozen quoted extensively from grand jury testimony that is supposed to be secret under Texas law; she said that she had been given unfettered access to the material, something that Earle vehemently denies. Most of the published material was also in depositions that I had read. Rozen’s account made for a compelling reading, as treasury employees explained how they had secretly preserved the records they had been asked to destroy. But the article is entirely one-sided. Little is mentioned of Hutchison’s legal defenses to the charges. For example, she has said that no records were permanently lost and that their removal from the state computer was actually an attempt to comply with Earle’s initial notification that her office was engaging in improper activity. “I was told that certain information on my computer should not have been there,” she told me. “So I told my employees to get that information off the state’s computer. I wasn’t trying to break the law. I was trying to obey it.”

The real damage of the depositions is that they provide something that rarely appears in print: intimate and detailed revelations about a public personality from named sources, all sworn to under penalty of perjury. They reveal the dark side of Kay Bailey Hutchison’s drive, how it occasionally erupts in rage when things don’t go they way she thinks they should—a rage worthy of the stories that still circulate about Lyndon Johnson. The comparison to male politicians with legendary tempers has not escaped Hutchison. When I asked her why she thinks that her employees would say that she hit them, when she says that she didn’t, Hutchison said, “People expect men to be tough bosses. They don’t like it when women are tough.”

One of the stories about LBJ was that when Nellie Connally had worked for him, he had once thrown a potted plant at her. Hutchison’s lawyers planned to use that story to counteract the most widely reported example of Hutchison’s anger, the allegation that she had struck Sharon Ammann, Nellie and John Connally’s daughter, with a notebook. Hutchison has repeatedly denied hitting Ammann, but two other former employees backed up Ammann in their depositions. In Ammann’s own deposition, she says that Hutchison came out of her office and asked Ammann for the telephone number of a San Antonio physician. When Ammann couldn’t find it, Hutchison lost her temper at the delay. “She came out of the office and started hitting her hands on the desk and doing her hands on the desk and doing her hands up,” Ammann related. “And she started raising her voice.” Then, according to Ammann, Hutchison proceeded to pound Ammann’s left shoulder with the notebook at a rate of one lick for each word: “I-told-you-to-look-in-that-file-cabinet-until-you-found-the-number-and-I-meant-it.”

Trilby Babin, a former administrative assistant to Hutchison, described a second incident in her deposition. She, Hutchison, and Mark Toohey, another aide, were in a car when Hutchison, who was talking on a cellular phone, gestured for Toohey to get something out of her briefcase. Toohey apparently didn’t understand what he was supposed to do, and when he didn’t do what she wanted, Hutchison became frustrated. “It seems to escalate,” said Babin. “She lost her temper and pinched him on the arm.”

Other personal details in the case were less damaging but still highly unflattering. David Criss, her former director of policy and planning at the treasury, told investigators for Earle that Hutchison routinely asked staff members to take the small containers of cream from restaurants so she could later use them at home. Employees were also asked to bring back mints from lunch meets at the Austin Club because Kay enjoyed them. But an investigative report also quoted Criss as saying that he wanted to “hurt Hutchison badly politically.” Other staff members related that Hutchison was obsessed with her political enemies. They told how she limited the circulation of her daily schedule so that Paul Williams, who had been a treasury administrator when Ann Richards held the office and now worked for Richards in the governor’s office, wouldn’t be able to get a copy and know what she was doing.

Hutchison spokesman David Beckwith described Ammann, Babin, and Criss as politically motivated (all have Republican credentials) and not trustworthy. He portrayed Hutchison as a tough boss who pays close attention to details, especially those involving other people’s money. “Once someone in the office overordered sandwiches for an official lunch,” said Beckwith. “Kay didn’t like it. Now we take specific orders to make sure we don’t pay for too many.”

There are two ways to look at these sorts of traits. One is that many people filch creamers and mints from restaurants, get angry at employees, and think their enemies are out to get them. The other is that the opposing forces of Hutchison’s public and private styles—”kissin’ up and pissin’ down,” as one Texas poll described it to me—are so strong that sometimes they just pull her apart.

At minimum, the constant tension can be a drag on her daily life, as was evident one morning in mid-May. Hutchison was seated in a TV studio not far from her Senate office on Capitol Hill, preparing to moderate a Republican-backed, nationally syndicated cable show called Women Who Win.

“Roll the TelePrompTer and let me run through it so I can get a feel for the script,” Hutchison ordered the crew of technicians, smoothing her red business skirt over her knees.

“Hello,” she said, beaming into the camera’s red light. “I’m Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison from Texas. Welcome to Women Who Win.” Against the backlit set, Hutchison looked like the image of the show’s title with her blond backbrushed hair, frosted nails, and a tidy chic suit. She looked self-assured as she explained that the goal of the program was to showcase Republican women who are on the political fast track.

“Tonight we’ll take you on the road to my hometown of Dallas,” said Hutchison, cheerfully, “and then on to the heartland of America”-suddenly a dark shadow crossed Hutchison’s face-”uh…uh…uh,” she stammered, staring helplessly into the camera. “Her eyes were squeezed shut, her lips pressed together. She seemed to be reexperienceing every awful moment of her life. She had made a mistake.

“Ready!” someone shouted from behind a camera. Hutchison regained control. “Tonight we’ll take you on the road to my hometown of Dallas, and then on to the heartland of America,” she said, and her smile was radiant as she paused and said, “Omaha.”

The most surprising thing that I learned about Kay Bailey Hutchison did not come from the depositions but from Hutchison herself. It was that the premier practioner of the politics of pretty does not consider herself pretty.

“I grew up in Texas in an era when being pretty was the goal of all women, and I wasn’t pretty. I was plain,” said Hutchison, leaning forward in a chair in her Senate office. Being pretty was, to young Kay Bailey, a goal to be achieved, just like being perfect and being powerful are goals for her as an adult. The pursuit of prettiness drove her as a child, just as the pursuit of perfection drives her now. “I chose to be pretty, even though I don’t have natural resources,” explained Hutchison. “Don’t you see? I’ve had to fight for everything I get.”

She is a product of time, the fifties; a place, the blue-collar Texas Gulf Coast; and a conventional, prosperous family. She grew up in La Marque, where her father, Allan Bailey, built hundreds of middle-class tract homes primarily for workers at the newly opened Union Carbide plant after World War II. Driving down Bowie Street, her mother, Kathryn, pointed to a neat row of two-bedroom homes and reflected on how Kay got her ambition. “Kay’s a hard worker like her daddy. Mr. Bailey built all these houses,” she said. “Her father was a workaholic. He couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and get to the office, and he was still taking telephone calls past eight o’clock at night. Kay’s just like him.”

But she was also like her mother, attractive and anxious to please. Looking good was always important to her. Kathryn Bailey has a photograph of Kay as a toddler dressed in a sweet, crisp white pinafore. “In the morning she liked to wear rompers, but in the afternoon she always called for her clean pinafores,” recalled Mrs. Bailey. “She always liked to dress, even then.”

Her parents expected that, unlike many of her classmates, Kay would graduate from college and become as successful as her father was in the business world — and as successful as her mother was at home. From the beginning, her ambition was at war with her image of femininity. Resolving the two has been her lifelong task.

Even as a child, Kay was her own toughest critic. Her best friends were two girls, Nancy and Cornelia, who lived down the street. The trio were inseparable. They played with Barbie dolls, went swimming in the summer, and had frequent sleepovers. “The other two girls were precious, absolutely gorgeous,” said Kay. “Compared to them I was really plain, and that was the beginning of my striving to get attention.” That feeling that somehow being second best was enough to stimulate a competitive drive that never lagged. “Take ballet,” Hutchison explained. “I took ballet lessons for twelve years — from kindergarten all the way through high school. I took it twice a week, even though I had no natural talent for it whatsoever. I just wouldn’t give up. Sometimes I even ask myself, ‘Why didn’t I quit?’”

The reason she didn’t quit is that she gives herself no quarter. If you quit, you are imperfect, and for Hutchison, imperfection is intolerable. To the outside world, success seemed to come easily to her. She was a cheerleader for three years in high school, prom queen, and Miss La Marque High School her senior year. With her white bobby socks and her hair in a ponytail, the slim and athletic Kay was the kind of all-American girl who could have been on TV in the Mickey Mouse Club.

“Kay was by far the most popular girl in school,” said Carol Ottwork Hasserd, a childhood friend who still lives in La Marque. “She won every award in town by a landslide, and most of those awards were by popular vote. No one gave them to her.”

She graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class and went off to the University of Texas, where she pledged the most exclusive sorority on campus, Pi Beta Phi, and became a cheerleader. Yet her ambition remained unsatisfied. “I was on the marriage track,” said Hutchison. “I thought I would be a housewife and a mother. The point was, I didn’t really think of a career. I decided to go to law school because I hadn’t found a husband by my junior year.”

She entered UT law school her senior year in college, one of only ten women in a class of five hundred. She was six hours shy of a college diploma—three hours of French and three of chemistry, requirements that she finally finished about the time the uproar started over railroad commissioner Lena Guerrero’s phony academic credentials in 1992.

After law school, she married a Houston physician, but the marriage lasted only a few months, a failure that must have been devastating to someone whose main ambition was still to be a wife and mother. She won’t talk about the divorce. Instead, she dwells on what happened in her professional life — her inability to get a job as a lawyer in Houston in 1967 — as the first turning point in her adult life. It was the first time, but not the last, that she consciously viewed herself as a victim. When Hutchison said today that she was indicted because of a Democratic conspiracy or that her employees resented her because she was a woman boss, the root of that anger is when she couldn’t get a job as a lawyer.

“Most of the firms just said no and didn’t offer a reason,” Hutchison told me. “Others said that most of their clients were male and wouldn’t like working with women lawyers. A few said they wouldn’t make the investment in me because they thought I’d get married and quit.”

One day in 1968 she was driving around Houston, feeling frustrated about not having a job, when she saw KPRC-TV offices and decided on the spur of the moment to apply. The station hired her as a reporter. This was the second turning point in her life: She became a public figure and gained a familiarity with politics. Equally important, she had obeyed her instinct about what she wanted and had succeeded. She had acquired a reputation for assertiveness around the station — someone who could gather facts quickly and was good on camera, but she refused to carry camera equipment and turned up her nose at crime stories. She developed a niche as a political reporter and opened the station’s Austin bureau, where she covered a session of the Texas Legislature.

In 1970 she went to work in politics as press secretary to Republican National Committee co-chair Anne Armstrong. Two years later, she ran for the Legislature from Houston and won. She was 29. When I asked her about the race, one of her memories was of encountering the same double standard that she had learned to resent while job hunting as a law school graduate. “At the beginning, women couldn’t get big checks from contributors,” she told me. “So I just worked hard getting lots of small checks, most of them from other women.”

Her record in the Legislature was much like it is now: following the Republican line (she voted against declaring Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday) but evidencing a strong interest in gender issues (she authored a bill giving more protection to rape victims during court proceedings). The star of the small group of Republican legislators was Ray Hutchison. Ray was also a freshman, but he was ten years older, politically wiser, and more inclined to engage in debate.

At the time, Ray was married with three children and living in Dallas. Four years later, after he was divorced and Kay had moved to Washington to chair the National Transportation Board, their romance began. They married in March 1978, and Kay found herself trying to balance marriage with her career. She came home to Texas to help Ray run for governor in the GOP primary, but her own drive pushed her on. During interviews, she sounded more like the candidate than the wife. She called for the establishment of a state energy office, and she made headlines in Houston when a campaign coordinator accused her of meddling in campaign strategy. When Ray lost to Bill Clements, Kay went to work in the private sector for RepublicBank, a seat of financial power in Dallas. Later she bought a candy company and added female entrepreneur to her résumé.

In 1982 she ran for Congress in Dallas for a seat vacated by Jim Collins. During the primary campaign, she complained that supporters of Steve Bartlett (now the mayor of Dallas) were running a smear campaign against her. Hutchison led Bartlett going into the runoff, but an anonymous letter containing personal slurs against Kay was mailed to her supporters. She lost the election, and on election night she was so overwrought that she burst into tears during her concession speech. It’s the only time in her career that she has cried in public. Twelve years later, it’s the letter — not the tears — that she remembers about that campaign. “I’ve learned how to fight back since then,” said Hutchison defiantly. “When someone hits you with mud, you have to wash off immediately. If I had it to do over again, I’d make that letter public.”

Once again Hutchison saw herself as a victim. The attacks had come from the Republican right wing, just as they do now, and for the same reasons—her moderate stand on abortion and her status as a career woman without children. The subject of children has always been well within her carefully protected zone of privacy, but when I asked her about whether she had made a conscious decision not to have a family, she and Ray acknowledged that until a few months before she announced for the U.S. Senate, they had tried—without success—to have children.

“I really wanted kids,” Kay said late one evening in Washington after a fourteen-hour workday. There was a look of unmasked pain on her face, and her voice dropped to barely a whisper. The specter of failure was plain to see. It was by far the most vulnerable I had seen her. Her inability to have children has become yet another reason to drive herself, a void she fills by working herself even harder. “When people tell me how easy my life has been and how I’ve had everything handed to me, I just shake my head,” sighed Hutchison. “An easy life it has not been.”

In Washington Kay Hutchison has cast herself in the role of victim and used it to her advantage. The indictment and trial haven’t hurt her stature. “The way most of us viewed what happened to Kay,” said Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, a GOP colleague, “is that the democrats couldn’t beat her at the polls so they trumped up these politically motivated charges.” Coats said he felt so sorry for her that he offered privately to vote for funding for the space station, a vote important to Texas and therefore to Hutchison, even though he personally opposed it.

Whether Texas voters will be equally forgiving remains to be seen. The criminal case was so poorly prosecuted that the legal issues are unlikely to come up in the campaign. Richard Fisher, her Democratic opponent, has said publicly that he does not intend to raise the matter. On the other hand, there is no way to know how badly Hutchison has been tarnished by the personal revelations.

She has certainly suffered personally. She wears the pain of her indictment like a pin that’s a tad gaudy. “I did not sleep for months,” Hutchison told me. “I’ve taken a lot of unnecessary harassment in my career, but this by far was the worst.” She seems more serious now, more like a mature woman than the girl next door. When she told me, “If Fisher uses the phrase ‘indicted felon’ in any of his TV ads, I’ll bury him,” I had the sense that I was seeing the real Kay Hutchison, one who has finally resolved the war between her image and her ambition in favor of the latter. With the trail behind her and her imperfections revealed to the public, she finally feels confident enough to fight out in the open. At 51, she’s old enough to harness her formidable drive and give up the burden of having to be pretty. “I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t gone the extra mile,” said Hutchison, in a voice that ran true. “At least I know now that nothing is ever going to be as excruciating as what I’ve been through already. If I lose an election, I can take it. Whatever happens, I’ve proven I can stand it.”

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