It's 1:30 p.m. on election day, and Karen Hughes, George W. Bush's communications director, is climbing the stairs at Bangs, a beauty salon on West 18th and San Antonio in Austin, Texas.
She settles into a chair, leans back to rest her neck on the lip of the sink, and puts her shock of gray hair into the experienced hands of Rhonda Peters, a honey-tongued, platinum-blonde Dolly Parton look-alike from New Orleans. As Peters turns on the water, the two exchange loud laughs. "Lucky every time!" Hughes says. On Hughes's two previous Election Days -- 1994 and 1998 -- Rhonda did her 'do to auspicious effect: Her hair held its upswept own and her boss, George W. Bush, swept into the Governor's Mansion.
"These things, Karen," says Rhonda, holding two clumpy wisps straight down on Hughes's forehead. "Try to keep them separated." But today, on the biggest day of Hughes's life, not to speak of her boss's, Hughes predicts she'll have other things on her mind. So Rhonda brings out the big gun -- an oversize aerosol can -- and shields Hughes's eyes. "This hair spray," Rhonda announces, "would stop a bird in flight."
There was, of course, no way for either of them to know how long Hughes would need to sustain her even-keeled professional comportment, and contain her emotions, on that endless Election Night and the following days in which victory eluded the Bush camp by a couple hundred ballot punches. By Friday, after three working nights that ended in the wee hours of the morning, one with a draining Nightline appearance, Hughes's alto voice wore down to a croak. But it was that scratchy sound millions of Americans heard as they tuned in to make sense of last week's events.
For the past year, Hughes has been the member of Bush's camp whom reporters turn to most often. Maybe journalists trust her more than they do the suits; maybe her folksy demeanor makes her seem more quotable when confronted with the task of explaining what can go wrong with a butterfly ballot. She's ready with the human details: "He's very calm, he's upbeat," she said jovially to a gym packed with press during the last hours of the Florida recount last Thursday. "He told me I'd better get to the office because there's a lot going on." But she also kept Bush looking presidential in the days after the election, allowing a few chosen reporters into the Governor's Mansion to see the Bushes lunching with the Cheneys in silk-drape-and-sterling-tea-set splendor. (In his photo op, Gore looked lumpy in sweats during a Nashville run with his daughters, their only escape from their Loews hotel suite.) Later, Hughes sent reporters into the old Sam Houston residence to watch the governor being briefed on the economy and national security by two top advisers.
During her six years as the top aide to the top dog of the Lone Star State, Hughes has been the one to whom the famously tongue-tied Bush has most often turned to fashion the phrases he relies on to reinforce his thoughts. She keeps him away from the press just enough of the time to cultivate some authoritative mystery. She encourages an intimacy with the more trusted members of the traveling press corps, which has allowed the governor to showcase his humor and foster some real affection. And she has anchored herself in the middle of the governor's relationship to the nation he might be about to lead.
Hughes struggles with the acceptance speech. "I have trouble concentrating on this until I know."
Karen Hughes thought she had kicked her cold on the Sunday before the vote. The bug had started with the governor's personal assistant, spread to her assistant, and then she got it. She fought it off with rest and Halls lozenges, but as Hughes departs the gang at Bangs on Election Day and heads out to her car under a loaned umbrella, she's still sniffling.
Jumping into her green Mazda 626, Hughes heads off to the polling place near her home. It's raining in Austin, and the construction on the highway has ground to a halt. It feels like the world has stopped.
When she accompanied the governor to his polling station earlier that morning, it was obvious that he wasn't as animated as usual. "I'd use the word serene," Hughes says. She herself is uncharacteristically calm, not once phoning into the office at the exact time network-sponsored exit polls should be coming in. It's too early to know anything, she insists. The governor's teasing last words as he left the press compartment on the campaign plane the night before seem suddenly significant: "You won't have me to kick around anymo -- I mean . . ." He trailed off laughing and walked away.
Hughes pulls her car in front of Valley View Elementary. She steps up to a voting booth and solemnly fills out the ovals with a soft-lead pencil.
When Hughes came onboard for the 1994 run, she wasn't sure she had it in her. An Army brat born in Paris, raised in part in Panama, and educated at Southern Methodist University, she had toughed it out as a local TV reporter until she got lured into politics. She spent a decade in the Texas GOP, working as the state party's executive director. But in 1994 she was 37, with a young son, and ready to take it easy.
Still, she accepted the Bush offer. One day, just as his challenge to Governor Ann Richards was getting interesting, she climbed aboard his campaign plane with a stack of press messages. Bush said he wanted no part of them.
Hughes was horrified: "I thought, 'I've made a huge mistake. I spent years earning credibility with the press, and now I'm working for someone who tells me not to return their calls.' " Bush had his reasons. "He said, 'I don't want to talk about some of those things.' And I said, 'Well, we'll just have to figure out what we want to say.' " And she worked hard to persuade him to feed the beast, to honor a standard of weekly press meetings where he would say something -- even if it was a kind of nothing.
Bush also wanted to test Hughes. "It was just basically to see how I'd react, to see if I'd stand my ground," she says, drawing out the last word just like he does. "You get to know him very quickly. There's no veil. He has this ability to just cut right to the root of things, and that was a way of doing it, I guess."
But every campaign has its share of mistakes, and Hughes gamely owns up to a few of her own. She admits she gave him bad advice when she and campaign strategist Karl Rove recommended that Bush insist on three debates on his own terms, based on his own schedule. "Karl and I really felt that Gore would have to be held to his word, that he had said anytime, anywhere, and the press would roast him if he didn't agree to anytime, anywhere. And we were just dead wrong." Again, she takes an extra step to remove the governor himself from the error. "I think he always had a little reluctance about it," she recalls, taking her eyes off the road to emphasize her point.
Her pro-Bush spin is relentless, and she seems aware that it might be eroding her credibility. Should Bush head to the White House, she says later, she'll give up her press-briefing role for something more strategy-oriented, more backstage. But she counters any suggestions that her boosterism has not always served Bush well.
"I think that's one of the big myths: that he's surrounded by yes-people," she says. "If he makes a decision, even if it's not what you agree with, if you feel like your position has been heard and understood, there's no resentment there. Because you feel like he listened, he heard, he had the advantage of that input, and he chose a different way." She grips the wheel, talking as fast as she can and steering the car toward home.