AFTER HALF A YEAR OF AMBIVALENCE about running for president, George W. Bush came back from his 1998 Christmas vacation in Florida with his mind made up to seek the White House. He had talked to his parents, to his wife, to his children—the younger the generation, the more restrained the enthusiasm—but one more person remained whose approval he felt he needed before he made his decision public: his 42-year-old communications director, Karen Hughes. Sitting in his Capitol office, with its portrait of Sam Houston and cabinet stocked with autographed baseballs, he told Hughes of his plans. “If you have any doubts about this,” he said to her, “we need to talk about it right now, because I’m not doing this unless you’re coming with me.”
Hughes did not respond with a perfunctory “Sure, Governor, I’m with you all the way.” Instead, she expressed her doubts about getting involved in a national campaign. She was facing the same issue Bush himself had faced earlier—how to maintain one’s personal life in the face of the seductions of power and the most intense scrutiny and pressure imaginable. “We talked about how all this fit in with my family and my faith,” says Hughes, a soccer (and baseball) mom who is an elder in her Presbyterian church. “Washington’s values are not my values. Everyone you meet is always looking over your shoulder for somebody more important.”
The conversation was intensely personal, touching on their Christian identities, and when it was over, Hughes felt reassured. It is, of course, hard to envision that she ever would have said no to Bush, or that he would not have gone on without her. Even so, the episode captures the essential nature of the Bush candidacy: the deep antipathy of the governor and many of his top advisers to the political system that they hope to take over, the evangelical strain of the campaign that is both religious and political (Bush as savior of the Republican Party), and above all, the indispensable importance of Karen Parfitt Hughes.
Hughes’s job is to oversee the crafting, polishing, and presentation of Bush’s message, which is more than a series of positions on issues; it employs a few consistent themes to tell the public what kind of person and politician he really is. The development of Bush’s national message started on election night last year, when, at Hughes’s urging, he used the phrase “compassionate conservative” several times in his victory speech. In those two words Bush successfully distanced himself from the strident right wing of his party without entirely divorcing himself from it.
Hughes is one of three longtime Bush hands at the apex of the campaign organization, the others being Karl Rove, whose sphere is politics, and Joe Allbaugh, who runs the business side of the campaign. They constitute a troika of equals; Bush wants no repeat of the czarlike role in his father’s White House played by chief of staff John Sununu, whom he is reputed to have fired. There is an unmistakable culture in this Bush campaign. Its elements are loyalty (far beyond what you would find in a campaign filled with Washington mercenaries); discretion (no leaks to the press); an almost mystical belief in the candidate’s ability to avoid being infected by, and perhaps even to cure, the sickness of Washington; a commitment to focus entirely on the Bush campaign (Rove had to give up his lucrative political consulting business to come on board as a campaign employee); and the absence of competition among the co-equals. And yet Hughes, more than anyone, has Bush’s ear. She is his political alter ego; whether she is giving advice or writing a statement, she has the knack of turning a phrase in a way that appeals to him. In her campaign office at a downtown Austin office building, a few photos of her with Bush rest on a windowsill. One is inscribed, “Without you, it could not happen”; another reads, “By my side—always right.”
“She’s one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met,” Bush says. “She’s totally honest; she doesn’t play games with you. She’s got great instincts and judgment.” Bush hands who have watched her in meetings describe her as a kind of irresistible force. She bursts with activity: walks fast, talks faster, reacts instantly, interrupts her own conversation with ironic commentary, and provides her own laugh track. She is tall, just short of six feet, but seems taller and usually wears suits that enhance her air of authority. Her hairdo, which she describes as “low maintenance,” complements the impression of energy; cut short, it has layers that deliberately head off in different directions, reinforcing the sense of energy. When she gets excited during a discussion, she stands up and opens her blue eyes so wide that it seems as if she has grown an inch.
IT SHOULD COME AS NO SURPRISE, then, that her whole life has been one of constant movement. She grew up an Army brat: born in Paris, raised in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida, Kentucky, Canada, and Panama, where her father, a major general with the Corps of Engineers, was the last American governor of the Canal Zone. Eventually the family landed in Dallas, and when her father was reassigned again, to Virginia, she stayed behind with a neighbor to complete her last year of high school. Hughes went to Southern Methodist University, expecting to go to law school—“I’ve always been an arguer,” she says—until she took a course in journalism and another in radio-TV newswriting. Her first assignment: Pick an address from a list prepared by the instructor and write about what you find there. She drew the It’ll Do Club. “It was a lonely hearts bar,” says Hughes. “I realized there was a lot of the world I had not seen.”
In 1976 she took a course from Lee Elsesser, then the news director at Channel 5, the Fort Worth—based NBC affiliate, and prevailed on him to give her an internship the next year.