Election Diaries: Hughes on First

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.

Though it’s a week after Halloween, the Hughes family house, on a shady corner lot in West Lake Hills, is covered in orange lights. “I did get the pumpkins out,” Karen says proudly. “I love my house.” Over the past year, the bulk of the domestic tasks have gone to Jerry Hughes, a lawyer who reduced his caseload to raise their 13-year-old son, Robert, while Karen was on the road.

In August, Karen decided to take Robert with her on the campaign plane for the last weeks of the campaign. She could home-school him at 30,000 feet. When he first arrived, the more cynical members of the press corps groused that Robert was there to act as a human shield for his mother, so she might be harder to confront. Party rivals wondered aloud if Hughes was trying to play up her working-mom image at a time when GOP Washingtonians were itching to install someone more seasoned and less Texan in the role of Bush spokesperson. But mother and son have an impressive rapport. Robert is like a sponge about campaign arcana, with instant lists of states to win if big battlegrounds go Gore’s way.

She shepherds Robert to the car and gets in the driver’s seat, and they drive toward downtown, discussing their unfamiliarity with Washington, D.C., which might just be their next hometown. Robert goads his mom into calling to get the early projections. She complies. “Uh-huh. Mm-hmm,” she says into the phone. This is killing Robert.

“Twenty-four states too close to call?” she murmurs into the phone. “Interesting … that’s interesting.” The numbers are down in Michigan and Colorado, the latter especially startling, and Hughes suggests to Rove that Colorado’s governor, Bill Owens, might be enlisted to make last-minute get-out-the-vote calls. She hangs up and tells Robert they are ahead in Ohio, West Virginia, Missouri, and Oregon. They’re down as many as four points in Florida.

This is bad news, and everything falls silent inside the Mazda. Robert whispers to his mom, “Is that good or bad?”

“I don’t know,” she replies.

It’s 3:30 p.m., and the Bush 2000 headquarters has a social atmosphere, a thin festive veneer over a core of nerves.

Karen bursts out of her office in mock arms-flailing psychosis, and lets out a loud laugh. “The model does this! The model says that!” she says of the vain quest for certainty. “It’s in the bag, buddy,” says media consultant Mark McKinnon to an increasingly anxious Robert. “You just have to be strong.”

Condoleezza Rice, the governor’s national-security adviser, is similarly agitated. “As in ‘no’ or ‘no word’?” she asks when someone is unclear about whether the governor is the projected winner of an eastern state. “By the end of the day, this all becomes an out-of-body experience,” she offers to a colleague in passing.

Joe Allbaugh, the campaign’s burly, flat-topped taskmaster, bounds down the hall and surveys the crowd. “You guys better start smilin’,” he shouts.

Karen powwows with Rove, Allbaugh, and campaign chairman Don Evans in Rove’s office. Passing around a phone receiver, they all get to bring up their concerns to the governor. Karen suggests that he get on the phone and talk to media outlets before the polls close in key states. He is ambivalent, even though the vice-president and his running mate are burning up the lines. Word of Hillary Clinton’s win is circulated along with the dismaying fact that exit polls may have Bush down in Arizona and Colorado, two states thought to be in the bag. Rove deems the ABC polling numbers “weird,” and later apes the governor’s response in grunts and shrugs.

Karen’s next tasks are to set the governor’s phone calls in motion, and her lieutenant Mindy Tucker produces a list that gets faxed to the governor, along with a draft of an acceptance speech written by in-house wordsmith Mike Gerson, then tweaked by Hughes. Within an hour, the word comes that the governor has been patched into drive-time radio shows in Pittsburgh.

Karen repairs to her office and boots up the computer. Robert fiddles with a little remote-controlled rat, a gift to Karen from a teasing Texas reporter in honor of the campaign’s “subliminable” attack ad. There’s more tinkering to do on the speech, but Karen can’t deal with it yet. “I have trouble concentrating on this until I know,” she says. When will she know? “My gut says 8:30 or 9 p.m.” She fidgets with e-mail, including some nonpartisan kudos from reporters at the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. There’s a prayerful message from her pewmates at Westlake Hills Presbyterian.

Around 5 p.m., she decides to return the call of Ron Fournier, the AP’s hyperaggressive chief political writer. “Ron, I don’t think so. We’re not going to do that,” she says, facing the wall where a plaque from the Lone Star Chapter of Government Communicators declares her 1999’s Communicator of the Year. “He’s just going to speak when he speaks.” She ends the call. Outside her window, a mix of rain clouds and twilight makes the sky between the office towers beige.

An hour later, Hughes gets a call from the governor, who has read the acceptance-speech draft. She waves a three-page document that he had marked up and faxed back. “Some of it he liked. Some of it he didn’t like. He wanted me to work on parts of it,” Karen says, closing her office door on the deflated faces in the hallway.

At 7 p.m. Austin time, panic hits. The networks project that Florida is in the Gore column, just as the governor and his kin gather together for a family dinner. Florida governor Jeb Bush goes through “some interesting emotions,” as his brother says later. George W., his wife, and his parents abruptly decamp for the Governor’s Mansion, and aides are challenged to explain the change in plans. Gordon Johndroe, one of Hughes’s assistants, who monitors the pool reporters, calls her to ask advice for what to tell them. Mindy Tucker bounds out of her office with the mobile phone to her ear, shouting, “This was his plan all along!”

The Bush camp’s peevishness is aimed squarely at CNN. Karl Rove appears with pancake makeup on his face and corners a press aide: “I would like you to call NBC and CNN and ask them what the hell they are doing.” The young volunteers manning the phones are silent, with eyes darting from screen to screen. “Are you okay?” one young woman asks a teary-eyed friend making her way to the women’s restroom.

Jerry Hughes and Leah, his daughter from his first marriage, arrive and join Karen and Robert in her office. They bring in paper plates with Papa Johns pizza slices and drape themselves on the furniture. At 7:45, Karl Rove runs by, yelling, “Good news out of Philadelphia!” Within minutes, Karen’s phone rings. It’s the governor, and it’s time for her to join him at the mansion.

Hughes gathers Robert and collects kisses before she heads down the elevator to the garage where her Mazda is parked. Along the way she starts describing the way she’s redone the governor’s acceptance speech. She has worked to make it sound like his voice. “I like to call it ‘eloquent simplicity,’ ” she says. “It’s simple, but it speaks volumes.”

I ask when we’ll see her again, and she says that we’ll see her next whenever we see the governor. And then she gives a first-ever glimpse of her doubt about the outcome. “I’ll be where the governor will be giving his speech – either a victory speech or a concession speech.”

The next time I speak to Karen, it’s midday Friday. She’s in a cobalt-blue suit, with Robert by her side, leaving her office and begging off cameras from NBC and CNN because “we’re just going to get a sandwich.” She’s had only thirteen hours of sleep since Tuesday. “We won the election,” she says wearily. “It’s now been confirmed that we won the election, but the vice-president’s campaign keeps erecting roadblocks.” And what about the feeling of suspense she had Election Night, when she worried over details on the acceptance speech? She smiles “That? That feels like a million years ago.”

Election Diaries: Hughes on First