IT WAS THE MONDAY MORNING American Airlines flight from Dallas­Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., and the business crowd in the coach section was packed six to a row, everyone reading papers or typing on laptops. Suddenly, out of first class came a toddler wobbling down the aisle, a pink sippy cup in one hand, a little doll in the other. She was cute, really cute, with sandy hair falling in her light blue eyes. She started swaying left, then right. “Oh, hell,” you could see the businesspeople thinking, “she’s going to crash into me and knock the coffee off my tray.” A couple of men on the aisle shifted their bodies toward the center seats, their eyes focused on the intruder, waiting for the inevitable.

Then a nice pair of black pumps came into their field of vision. The men on the plane couldn’t help but notice a nice pair of legs attached to that pair of pumps. Their gazes continued upward, and they saw a dark purple St. John Knits skirt with a matching blazer and silk blouse, very expensive. They saw a pearl necklace and matching pearl earrings. They saw a woman’s face, surrounded by perfectly placed, highlighted blond hair. And right about then is when their mouths dropped wide open.

“Careful, honey,” said 59-year-old U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, to her 20-month-old daughter, Bailey. She gave the other passengers an apologetic smile as the child recovered her balance and continued her march to the rear of the plane, at which point she turned and headed back to the front. Bailey dropped her sippy cup and then emitted a noise from her bottom that sounded much like a small lawn mower trying to get started. “Oops,” said the distinguished senior senator from Texas.

Kay Bailey Hutchison has now been in the public spotlight for thirty years. In terms of votes received, she is by far the most popular politician in Texas history. No one else—not George W. Bush, not Ann Richards, not Phil Gramm, not Lyndon Johnson—has ever gotten more than four million votes in an election, which she did in winning reelection to the Senate in 2000. She is also the vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, comprised of all the GOP senators, which arguably makes her the most influential woman in the new Republican-controlled Senate.

Yet there is one reason, and one reason only, why she is today the source of such enormous curiosity among many Texans. A year and a half ago, she and her husband, Ray, a prominent Dallas bond attorney who is seventy years old, announced that they had adopted a girl, whom they named Kathryn Bailey. A few months later they announced that they were adopting a second child, a baby boy they named Houston, who is three months younger than Bailey.

The Hutchisons had been so secretive about adopting the two children that many of their friends did not know what they had done until published accounts appeared in the newspapers. Even their closest friends, who received telephone calls from the couple just before the news broke, were astonished. Many of these people had grandchildren older than the Hutchisons’ new children. “We joked that Kay and Ray were going to be having their cars taken away from them just as their kids would be getting their drivers’ licenses,” one of her former Pi Phi sorority sisters from the University of Texas told me.

Almost everyone who read or heard about the adoptions was puzzled. “Please tell me—what was Kay thinking?” asked a wealthy Dallas woman I know, whose husband contributes to Kay’s campaign fund every time she runs for office. “I can’t figure it out.” Why, indeed, would a woman who must debate the issues of the day with 99 other senators, sit on various committees, meet with representatives of special-interest groups, and deal with 20 million constituents back home, suddenly decide after more than twenty years of childless marriage that the time had come to raise two young children? A woman, it should be noted, who is going to turn sixty years old in July?

“Oh, no,” Kay lamented when I raised the issue during lunch at the City Cafe in Dallas. She aimed her pretty blue eyes at me as if they were rifles. “Here you go with the psychobabble questions.”

She ought to be used to it by now. Kay has had to deal with what she calls psychobabble ever since she became the first Republican woman to serve in the Texas House, in 1973. Women who enter politics learn quickly that their personality and mannerisms come under far more intense public analysis than those of male politicians. Was anyone, for instance, ever interested in learning about the inner life of the bombastic Phil Gramm during his eighteen years in the Senate? But people have been putting Kay on the Freudian couch for a long time, in large part because she seems to embrace so many contradictory qualities. She cultivates the image of her state’s foremost female stereotype—the blond former University of Texas coed, sorority girl, and cheerleader—yet one does not have to spend much time watching her at work to recognize the intense, driven perfectionist that lies behind the image. Although she does indeed look, as Newsweek once wrote, like Senator Barbie Doll, the impeccably dressed girl next door with the perfect smile and the teased honeyed hair on top of her head, she is also regarded as one of the toughest and most demanding bosses in the Senate. Although she projects a fundamental niceness wherever she goes, she is renowned among her staffers for her fierce stare, which she will level on those who in some way disappoint her—a stare, says her former chief of staff Mark Franz, “that can feel like a sword being driven through you.”

And so her motives, ambitions, personal life, fashion taste, and even her hairstyle have been studied and restudied. Political insiders love to sift through the details of her past—which include great triumphs, great disappointments, and a controversial felony indictment over ethics violations that ended with her exoneration—to try to figure out what makes her tick. They ask questions about her that would never be asked about men, who, in the double standard of politics, are allowed to put their ambitions and egos on public display, while women are expected to shield theirs: Is she a devoted public servant motivated by a love for her state to relentlessly push herself and those who work for her to get things accomplished? Or is she, to use a word that Kay herself employed to characterize what her critics say about her, a “shrew” with a wicked temper, driven by a burning need to take on men and beat them at their own game?

The surprise announcements of the adoptions have only added to the psychological mystery about who Kay is and what she wants out of life. A few cynics have wondered aloud if the kids were a political ploy to give Kay an even more favorable image among voters in case she someday runs for governor. That hardly seems worth the effort involved in raising two children, considering that some polls show Kay’s approval ratings are nearly ten points higher than any other Republican officeholder’s in Texas.

What’s more, since the announcements of the adoptions, the new Senator Mom has done nothing to exploit her motherhood. Just the opposite: According to aides, she has turned down more than one hundred media requests for interviews and photographs of herself with the children, including the New York Times Magazine and CBS’s 48 Hours. It was the kind of publicity that most politicians could only dream of. No, she said. Her family life was a private matter.

“I never want to make my children the subject of a story,” Kay told me in a firm tone during our lunch, reiterating that she would not allow her children to be photographed for this article. “I cannot tell you how thrilled I am that we do have children, and I cannot begin to tell you what a joy they are to have in our lives, but I don’t want them the object of publicity, ever.”

She did agree to pass on a few details about the adoptions—the first time she has ever spoken publicly about how they came to pass. She told me that she and Ray, whom she met in the seventies when he too was a state legislator, had always been intent on having a family and that they had tried unsuccessfully for many years to have children of their own. She was so hungry for children, she said, that she was still trying to get pregnant as late as 1993, when she was fifty years old. But at about that time, the seat for the U.S. Senate became open with Lloyd Bentsen’s resignation to become Secretary of the Treasury, and she devoted her attention to getting elected. “And we didn’t think about it for a while,” she said. Then, just a few years ago, she began talking to Ray about adoption.

Their decision to adopt was certain to raise eyebrows. Many adoption advocates say that the small pool of children available for adoption should be going to younger parents. Yet she and Ray began getting their names to licensed adoption agencies. Perhaps because of their prominence, and certainly because they were willing to pay the $20,000 to $30,000 fee, the Hutchisons, after two years of waiting, received a call about a little girl who was from another state. Then, later that year, when they were only a few days from having their adoption of Bailey legally certified by a court, they got a call from another agency, asking if they would like a little boy.

They said yes—and just like that, they were brand-new parents twice over. Kay began changing diapers and lugging around a satchel filled with sippy cups and teething rings to go along with her satchel full of briefing papers. In her immaculate Washington office, decorated with grand sofas and noble wingback chairs, a gilded mirror, and an oil painting of William Barret Travis, she placed a bright green Graco playpen next to her battleship-size desk. Instead of getting work done on planes—she used to be renowned on those Dallas-to-Washington flights for putting her head down over her papers and never looking up until the airplane pulled up to the gate—she worried about whether Bailey or Houston would spill milk or jelly on her designer clothes.

“You have to admit,” I said, “that a lot of people are curious whether you can handle both lives—the life of a senator and the life of a new mom.”

The senator sighed, put down her fork, and gave me a look, already sensing that I wanted to head into that “psychobabble” territory. “You know, hasn’t everyone read a lot of those stories about women who can work and raise a family at the same time?” she asked. “Is it really that interesting anymore? Many mothers have been in my position, you know.”

BUT, OF COURSE, NO OTHER mother with toddlers has been in this position: in the U.S. Senate at age 59. A month after our lunch, she let me travel with her from Dallas to Washington so that I could watch her work, and during the three days I was with her, she was in frenetic action from early morning until late in the evening. On the first Monday I was with her, for instance, she:

(1) walked three miles around her Dallas neighborhood at about five-thirty in the morning, (2) woke her children, gave them breakfast, dressed Bailey and took her to the airport (Houston stayed home with the nanny), (3) walked Bailey up and down the aisles on the flight to Washington, (4) jumped with Bailey into a staffer’s car at Ronald Reagan National Airport and cooed at her child while talking on a cell phone, (5) dropped Bailey off at her Washington home where her baby-sitter waited, then headed to the Russell Senate Office Building, (6) literally ran up two flights of stairs to her second-floor office, where she talked for a few minutes to staff members, (7) strode quickly from her office to the main Capitol building, at least a quarter of a mile walk, passing up the subway reserved for senators because she likes to get in aerobic exercise whenever she can, (8) participated with other Republican Senate leaders in a meeting about the upcoming Homeland Security bill, (9) strode quickly back to her office, again passing up the subway, (10) conducted more meetings in her office and made phone calls, (11) spent a few minutes playing with Bailey, who had been brought up to the office by the baby-sitter, (12) met with various legislative aides, a group of intense policy wonks who spend their days in an office across the hall reading the fine print of bills and watching C-SPAN, (13) and finally, at about seven, went to dinner with Bailey and select members of her staff at Tortilla Coast, a Tex-Mex restaurant on Capitol Hill.

That dinner was the first moment I had had a chance to talk to her since the flight that morning. I brought up her constantly pressing schedule, and she was about to answer, but then, as if on cue, she was distracted by her chief of staff, who was speaking in stern tones into his cell phone. He was talking about an anonymous senator who was trying to hold up one of Kay’s bills, which was scheduled for a vote that evening. Suddenly, she leaped up and headed to the car to return to the Senate chamber, followed by staffers. She stopped only to give a quick good-bye kiss to Bailey, who was taken home by her administrative assistant. At the Capitol, she disappeared into the Senate cloakroom, working with aides to make sure there would be no more parliamentary “holds” put on her bill. She waited on the Senate floor until her bill was passed by unanimous consent and then gave a ten-minute speech about its provisions, which would impose tighter security requirements for cargo shipped on passenger flights to prevent another terrorist attack.

By that time of night, I was the only visitor sitting in the gallery. Across from me, the press gallery was empty. There was no other senator on the floor to listen; they had all gone home for the evening. Kay could have just as easily handed her speech to a clerk, who would have had it inserted into the Congressional Record and made it appear as if she had given a speech. But by giving the speech, she ensured that the bill’s purpose would receive more prominent placement in the Record. “There is no point in carefully screening every piece of luggage if the cargo placed aboard the same flight is not inspected at all,” she declared, punctuating her remark with a clenched fist, which she swung from left to right. I looked at my watch. It was 9:45.

None other than Tennessee senator Bill Frist, the new majority leader, told me that Kay’s work ethic is legendary in the Senate. “I’m considered a workaholic, and it’s nothing compared to what she does,” he said. Her nickname around the Senate is the Needle, a phrase coined by deposed majority leader Trent Lott a few years ago during a tax-cut fight, when she kept needling him and other Senate leaders to eliminate the marriage-tax penalty, the part of the tax code that resulted in two-wage-earner couples having to pay higher taxes if they were married.

Her husband, Ray, cheerfully described his wife as “one of the great nitpickers.” This attention ranges from her hair—she has an almost mystical ability to know when one strand is out of place—to the activities of her staff. Whenever she has a free moment, she is typing notes to her staffers on her BlackBerry, a handheld Internet messaging device. One day when I was following her around in Washington, she stood with the other Senate Republican leaders at a press conference in which a ceremonial phone call was made to President Bush to inform him that the Homeland Security bill was finally going to pass. The news media and several photographers had gathered for the occasion. As the phone number was being dialed and flashbulbs were going off everywhere, Kay, standing right behind the speakerphone, took a moment to glance down at the BlackBerry in her hand to see if she had any new messages.

Kay is such a perfectionist that she will sometimes go to astonishing lengths to make sure she gets tiny things right. This past summer, she was asked to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for a baseball game between the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros. She cornered Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Detroit Tigers who is now a senator from Kentucky, and asked him to teach her to pitch. In a hallway outside the august Senate chambers, they threw a baseball back and forth, Bunning showing her where to put her fingers on the seams and how to follow through. When she returned to Dallas for the summer recess, she had a staffer come to her Dallas home and practice throwing with her in the front yard. On the night of the game, she walked out on the field and fired a perfect strike. Fans began chanting, “Sign her up! Sign her up!” Bunning happened to be throwing the first pitch for a Reds game that summer, but he missed the strike zone high and outside. “I told Jim that the next time he needed pitching tips to call me,” Kay recalled with a sly grin.

What is perhaps most impressive about her nonstop schedule is that she is one of the few commuting senators. When Congress is in session, she comes back to Texas every weekend, no exceptions, and usually one day of that weekend she makes a public appearance somewhere in the state. During his senatorial years, Phil Gramm rarely made public appearances when he came home. A lot of Texans never laid eyes on him except when they watched television. Kay, on the other hand, attends an almost ridiculous number of ribbon cuttings and chamber of commerce dinners. “She doesn’t have a normal hobby like golf or tennis,” said former chief of staff Franz, who is now a Washington lobbyist. “She works. But she works because she likes it. On a down day, she likes to get into a small, cramped airplane, travel around the state to little towns, meet constituents, and talk issues.”

“Kay is simply a prodigious worker, and she expects everyone she hires to be just as prodigious a worker as she is,” said Pat Oxford, one of her closest friends since college, who is the managing partner at the Bracewell and Patterson law firm in Houston and has been her state chairman during her past two senatorial campaigns. “And she will confront you on a regular basis if you are not working prodigiously. She is not one to say to me, ŒPat, you must not feel good today, because you didn’t get this done.’ She’ll say, ŒPat, we talked about this issue yesterday at four p.m., and you said you would have it done at nine a.m., and I need it right now.’”

IT IS THIS PASSION FOR her work that has generated so much of the psychobabble. Anyone who has tried to keep up with her during her race-walks around the Capitol cannot help but ask the question, “What makes Kay run?” Is she running for something—like president? Is she running from something—like disappointment? Or is she running because she constantly feels the need, even now, to prove herself?

Kay once admitted that her mother used to tell her, “Stop working so hard.” Growing up in La Marque, between Houston and Galveston, she was not a particularly accomplished student academically—”I made B’s,” she said—but she was very much like her father, an insurance agent and homebuilder who worked seven days a week and then came home and made phone calls. She was in a myriad of activities and clubs and won a bundle of school honors and elections, including Miss La Marque High School. Think of the Reese Witherspoon character in the movie Election, whose blond hair and beauty-pageant smile hid a dogged determination. That was Kay Bailey in the early sixties.

At the University of Texas, she was ahead of her time in seeking to have it all—social life (Pi Beta Phi sorority), highly visible position (cheerleader), and career path (law school student, one of only 5 women in a class of 269). But two things happened to her in law school that would have a profound impact on her life. She got married to a young man who was in medical school in Galveston. In that era, of course, just about every sorority girl thought she should get married as soon as she graduated from college. But her marriage lasted less than a year. The divorce had to be a humiliating experience for a young woman who had always had everything working in her favor. “After that experience, I did realize, more than ever, that I’d better be able to know how to make my own way through life,” Kay told me. Another disappointment came when she graduated from law school, in 1967, and no established Texas law firm would hire her. The managing partners of the firms told her and other female graduates that they didn’t want to invest time or money in young women lawyers because they were afraid the women would get married, get pregnant, and quit.

“Surely,” I said to her one day when we were having lunch in the private dining room reserved for senators, “there must have come a moment when you looked at all those men running the big law firms and said, ŒThose sons of bitches.’”

“No,” she said. “What I thought was, ŒThis is a man’s world, and if I’m going to be successful, then I’m going to have to be better prepared than a man—always.’ And I still think that. A woman can’t be just okay to make a difference. She has to be great.”

She got a job as an assistant at a one-man firm in Galveston, and then one day she drove past television station KPRC, in Houston. On an impulse, she stopped the car, walked in, and told news director Ray Miller that she thought she’d make a good television reporter. Miller, who had been thinking about hiring the station’s first woman reporter, gave her some basic training, then sent her to Austin to cover the Legislature. She wasn’t a political person—”I hadn’t spent much time thinking about government,” she said—but like almost every other member of the Austin press corps who has covered the Legislature, she thought to herself, “I can do better than these guys.” In 1972 she ran for a Houston legislative seat. Her Republican primary opponent’s campaign slogan was “A family man who wants to represent your family”—a veiled reference to Kay as a 29-year-old single woman. He also declared that the upstart candidate was not qualified because she hadn’t joined the Young Republicans during her years at the University of Texas. “I didn’t even know UT had Young Republicans,” she recalled. She won after knocking on doors throughout her district.

Her major piece of legislation during her two terms in the House was a bill (co-sponsored with Democrat Sarah Weddington, of Austin, a law school classmate) preventing district attorneys from bringing up the sexual histories of rape victims during the rape trials, unless their histories were directly related to the case. She left the Legislature in 1976, when President Gerald Ford named her to the National Transportation Safety Board; while in Washington she had a few dates with a Washington bachelor named Alan Greenspan. But in 1978 she moved to Dallas to marry Hutchison, with whom she had served in the Legislature. He was running for governor but lost the Republican primary to Bill Clements, who went on to become the first GOP governor of Texas since Reconstruction.

In 1982 Kay tried to resume her political career. She ran for a Dallas congressional seat but encountered some old prejudices about women and some new ones about whether she was conservative enough. She says that one of her male Republican opponents pointedly asked voters in an ad, “Who’s tough enough to stand up to Tip O’Neill?”—the clear implication being that a woman was not. During the runoff campaign against Steve Bartlett, an anonymous letter was sent to Republican voters suggesting that she had wrecked Ray Hutchison’s first marriage. “Back then, you beat a woman in an election by degrading her,” Kay told me, her eyes narrowing at the memory. When she gave her concession speech on election night, she cried—the only time she has ever broken down in public.

It appeared her political career was over. She bought a candy manufacturing plant and a decorative showroom and settled into a new career as a businesswoman. But when Ann Richards ran for governor in 1990, the state treasurer’s office was open, and Kay decided to try politics for the third time. She won easily, and in 1993, when Lloyd Bentsen resigned as U.S. senator to serve as Secretary of the Treasury, she went after the seat in a special election. The Democrats threw everything at her. Gloria Steinem called her a “female impersonator.” Cybil Shepherd pronounced that she was “no good for women or children.” Columnist Molly Ivins, drawing on how Kay epitomized the power-suited Dallas career woman, called her the Breck Girl, a line that stuck. But there was no way she was going to lose; the suburbs had mushroomed with Republican voters. Soccer moms especially saw in her a friendly, feminine, conservative face who took traditional Republican positions for lower taxes and less government spending but at the same time wanted more mass transit and arts funding. She rolled up 67 percent of the vote against Richards’ appointee, Bob Krueger, and it wasn’t long before pundits began talking about her as a possibility for a future national ticket.

And then, as had happened before, with her divorce, her law career, and her congressional race, she once again faced a life-changing event that threatened to snatch her dreams away from her. In the spring of 1993 Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle investigated her for committing ethical infractions when she was the state treasurer. In September she was indicted for official misconduct and tampering with government records and physical evidence. Earle contended that she had used public employees to conduct campaign business and had altered phone records kept on state computers. The Almanac of American Politics later called the affair a “rotten prosecution,” and the charges, if true, should have been treated as misdemeanors and forgotten. But the prospect of a high-profile felony trial for a sitting U.S. senator created an uproar around the state. Furious Republicans claimed Earle and other Democratic officials were conspiring to get her out of the way so their party could reclaim the Senate seat. But the most damaging publicity for Kay came from her own employees at the treasury and had nothing to do with the charges against her. Sharon Connally Ammann, the daughter of former governer John Connally, claimed in a deposition that her boss had once hit her with a notebook when she couldn’t find a telephone number. Another employee said she had witnessed Kay pinch another aide who didn’t get something out of his briefcase fast enough. The tales painted a portrait of her as manipulative and dictatorial. But she was vindicated when Earle declined to proceed with the trial, and the judge directed the jury to reach a verdict of not guilty.

Kay went on to win a full six-year term in 1994 by a landslide. But the episode tarnished Kay just as she was starting her Senate career. She was forced to give one interview after another declaring that she had passed a polygraph backing her contention that she had never physically abused an employee. When I brought up the decade-old episode in one of our conversations, her face fell and she shut her eyes. It was still the source of enormous pain. “I just cannot believe you want to write about that again,” she told me.

Looking back on that time, her friend Pat Oxford recalled, “It nearly buckled Kay’s knees. I saw a lot of tears back then, a lot of grief. The whole patina of the thing—hiring criminal lawyers, getting a defense lined up, fighting off those Sharon Connally comments—changed her. In the past, she was perhaps a little more ladylike in politics. But after the indictment, she became more aggressive and far more wary. She wouldn’t let the other guy throw the first blow.”

As part of that wariness, she became much more cautious around reporters who arrived to write profiles of her—and seldom liked what they wrote. (“They always turn out to be so wrong,” she told me.) Although she could be a charming storyteller who rattled off anecdotes from her family history (her great-great grandfather was a signee of the Texas Declaration of Independence), she was determinedly reserved when interviewers asked her to talk about herself, always thinking about how her words might look in print and always trying to push the conversation toward her work. And with her BlackBerry firmly in hand, she made sure that neither she nor her staff was ever caught unprepared regarding a matter of public policy. No one was going to get the chance to publicly humiliate her again. “I’m very intense when it comes to work,” she told me. “I don’t lose control, and I never raise my voice, but I’m very hard to work for because I push you. I feel my job is to pull more out of you, to make you better than just okay. I’m just as hard on myself, you know.”

For all her exhaustive work, however, Kay is not yet a senator who has defined herself nationally with a particular piece of legislation or an issue, the way Gramm did repeatedly—from budget cuts and banking reform to opposition to the Clinton health care plan. She is considered one of the most active senators in writing legislation aimed at improving the lives of women—sponsoring or co-sponsoring bills to allow homemakers to deduct $2,500 a year for an IRA, to make “cyberstalking” a federal crime, to increase mammogram standards, and to eliminate the marriage-tax penalty—but that doesn’t get you a lot of points in the male-dominated Senate. She did receive belated praise for pushing for legislation to improve airport security before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon at a time when no one else was thinking about such matters.

One reason that she may not have become a national figure is that she had to tend to Texas’ interests and needs without any help from Gramm. She has fought for Texas’ military bases, historic sites, and oil industry, and more highway and mass-transit funding. “If there’s a federal bill out there that might adversely affect Texas,” says Republican state representative Dianne Delisi, of Temple, “there’s a saying among Democrats as well as Republicans around the Legislature: ŒCall Kay.’ She has always been the go-to person in Washington for almost any Texas issue. And she doesn’t need a staffer to give her a briefing beforehand about what the issue is.”

But Gramm was a Senate heavyweight, while Senator Barbie Doll has had to struggle to be taken seriously. The Congressional Quarterly wrote in 2000 that she is sometimes dismissed as a senator who is “more fluff than substance.” That perception, if it was ever widely held, seems to be changing. Majority leader Frist chuckled at the criticism when I talked to him, pointing out that she had, on her own, without any committee chairmanship, pushed her way to the forefront of the debate on defense and national security. Republican senator John Warner, of Virginia, told me that Kay would be highlighted more on domestic issues during this coming session because the Republicans will need a female face to counteract Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic minority leader of the House of Representatives. Perhaps one of the problems for Kay—one that Phil Gramm never had—is that the Senate, despite now having fourteen female senators, remains a boy’s club.

“The Senate can be a lonely place for a woman,” Kay told me. “But Washington in general is a lonely place. The women senators meet socially for dinner once a month, but other than that, everyone lives autonomous lives. There’s no real life here. I still think back on those days in the Legislature, where we got together at someone’s apartment and played bridge at night.”

MAYBE LONELINESS WAS ONE OF the reasons the idea of children came back to Kay. No matter how much work she did every day as a senator, she still felt that childless void in her life. A couple of her close friends told me that Kay reevaluated her life after the death of her mother, Kathryn Bailey, in 1998, five years after the death of her father. Kay worshiped her mother. She was a woman, Kay once told me, “who spent her life chauffeuring me around, telling me I could become whatever I wanted to be, which few mothers were telling their daughters back in the fifties.” When she died, said one of Kay’s friends, “Kay looked around and said, ŒWe need to keep this family going.’ And Kay being Kay, she decided to do something about it.” I asked her if she had to give the speech of her life to persuade Ray, who has children in their forties from his first marriage, of the advantages of becoming a father one more time at age seventy. Although she kept insisting to me that she was going “to keep our private lives private”—she said she didn’t want her children to grow up and have to read some “psychobabble” about their adoptions—she did want to make it clear that Ray was just as ecstatic about having children as she was. When I went to see him at his Dallas office, he pulled out half a dozen photos of the kids from his briefcase and roared with laughter as he talked about the way Houston liked to wrestle with him on the floor

For people who have known this very political, very career-driven couple, the transformation has been remarkable. They have been seen taking Bailey and Houston to a Dallas park, to a Fourth of July fireworks celebration, and to Dallas’ Valley View Mall, where the kids climbed on small rubber sculptures designed for children. At Republican gatherings, Kay finds herself besieged by women who want to hear what she has to say about the children, not Iraq. And at night, instead of turning to Robert Caro’s recent book on Lyndon Johnson’s Senate years, she is reading Beauty and the Beast to her children. “The Caro book is one I’m dying to read, and I haven’t gotten past page two,” she said, giggling like a young mother.

It was moments like this that made me wonder whether her attitude about her career was changing. As driven as she is by politics, she exhibited a delight regarding her children I never saw when she was discussing her Senate achievements. She is obviously not fond of life in Washington, and she has never hesitated to tell her friends that she wants to raise her children in Texas and send them to schools there. The question is, How does she get back home and stay in politics? She has never made a secret of her desire to be governor, and she considered running against Rick Perry in the 2002 Republican primary, but she told me she passed up the chance when Gramm announced his retirement: “I knew I couldn’t walk away from the Senate at the same time as Phil and leave Texas with two freshman senators.” (GOP insiders say Perry adroitly got the backing of big-money GOP contributors early in 2001 to keep her from launching a major challenge to him.) If Perry has a good run as governor and decides to run for reelection in 2006, her next good chance to be governor would not come until 2010, when she would be 67 years old. When I asked her during a flight if she would still consider a run in that year, she said, “It’s hard to say what’s going to happen.”

“Well,” I said, “have you thought about life outside politics?”

There was a long pause. She seemed, once again, to be weighing her answer, deciding how it would look in print. Finally, she said with a soft, almost wistful voice, “I have thought about what it would be like to have free time again. And as the children get older, I do want to be there to take them to The Nutcracker and to soccer games, to stand on the sidelines and cheer.”

But then she began to talk about all the things she still wanted to do for Texas. It was amazing to listen to her; she talked nonstop about projects ranging from a national heritage site for Buffalo Bayou in Houston and national monument status for the Waco Mammoth Site to more mass-transit funding for the cities. “I know this is what all politicians say,” she said, “but I love this state. I will do anything for this state.” The airplane was landing, and the senator, as always, checked her BlackBerry. A message had arrived from one of her staffers about an impending piece of business. Before she got off the plane, she had pulled out her cell phone and was telling a staffer about five or six things that she wanted done. “We need to get on this now, right now,” she said. She grabbed her satchels and walked briskly out of the plane, where an assistant was waiting to take her to a meeting. Within moments, she was getting into a car and making another phone call. She grabbed some papers from a satchel and put them on her lap. She barely had time to wave good-bye to me before she was gone.