Karen Hughes, the Power Behind the Curtain

August 18, 2001 • Commentary

Senior presidential adviser Karen Hughes may be the most powerful woman ever in U.S. politics, but the major media don’t treat her that way. They spilled a lot of ink on politicos such as Hillary Clinton, Rosalynn Carter, and Eleanor Roosevelt–and still do. Yet the woman from Texas is largely ignored. How come?

Hughes was one of three top aides to George W. Bush in the Texas governor’s mansion. Along with Karl Rove, she has shaped Bush’s agenda, political strategy, and communications. She wrote his autobiography. During the campaign she hired two experienced Washington press secretaries, and fired one. Observers say that when Bush speaks in public, her lips move along with his. She is the most powerful shaper of the words and message of a president of the United States whose own command of the language seems weaker than average.

Hughes’s role in the Bush White House is somewhat more central than that of George Stephanopoulos in the Clinton White House. Yet in the first two months of 2001 Nexis finds that Hughes was mentioned 143 times in major newspapers, compared with 1,503 mentions of Stephanopoulos during the first two months of 1993.

So is the obscure Hughes really the most powerful woman ever in American politics despite her low profile in the media?

You could make a good case that that title should go to Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, who was effectively the acting president during President Woodrow Wilson’s illness. Eleanor Roosevelt was not only an influence on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt but a public figure and leader of left‐​liberals in and out of the administration. Other First Ladies such as Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan have been powerful influences on their husbands, and Hillary Clinton was probably the first presidential spouse to be a key adviser in her husband’s inner circle of strategists.

Moving beyond First Ladies, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wields a great deal of power as the swing vote on a sharply divided Supreme Court. But in theory, at least, the Supreme Court is non‐​political, so we’ll disqualify her. Ditto for former top diplomat Madeleine Albright.

Plenty of women have now served as governors and senators, from Lurleen Wallace and Margaret Chase Smith to Barbara Mikulski, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Dianne Feinstein, and the nation’s first pregnant governor, Jane Swift of Massachusetts. But none of those seem to have reached the top rungs of political power.

Sometimes behind‐​the‐​scenes players have more real power than elected officials. Susan Estrich was the first woman to manage a major presidential campaign, when she took over the Michael Dukakis campaign in 1988 after campaign manager John Sasso was fired for the apparently unacceptable practice of pointing out untruths in opponent Joe Biden’s campaign speeches. Within a week of her appointment she was the subject of a 3,300-word profile in the Washington Post Style section. But after Dukakis plunged from a 17‐​point lead over Vice President George Bush, Sasso was brought back to try to salvage the campaign.

In 1993, the first female White House press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, got 3,137 words in her Style profile, even though the article noted that “the job isn’t quite what it used to be. She makes less money and has a lesser title (deputy assistant to the president rather than assistant) than past press secretaries. She briefs reporters in the mornings and afternoons but she is not the only briefer. Once a day, communications director Stephanopoulos delivers the message while Myers sits on the sidelines and observes.”

More recently, Donna Brazile was celebrated as “the first African American woman to fill a top post in a major presidential campaign” when she became manager of Al Gore’s campaign in October 1999. She had to wait a full month for her 2,600-word Style profile. But key decisions were made by campaign chairman Tony Coelho and then by his successor Bill Daley.

So where are the profiles of Karen Hughes? The first woman ever at the top of a winning presidential campaign and at the heart of a White House remains unknown to most Americans. No Style profile yet, though during the campaign she shared one with Rove and campaign manager Joe Allbaugh. Meanwhile, the media adviser she hired (Mark McKinnon) and the chief spokesman she hired (Ari Fleischer) have each been the subject of a profile. National Journal, the magazine for Washington policymakers, has just put Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Nita Lowey on the cover for being the new chairs of the Senate and House Democratic fundraising committees. But there’s been no cover for Karen Hughes.

There are three reasons why Hughes hasn’t received more attention–and why Bush hasn’t received more credit for giving a woman unprecedented power in the White House.

First, it doesn’t fit the story line. Conservative Texas Republicans don’t make breakthroughs for women and minorities. Michael Dukakis, Al Gore ­ sure, liberal Democrats are supposed to have diverse staffs, and so their appointments of Estrich and Brazile were the focus of media attention. It confirmed a media story line Democrats are progressive and committed to the advancement of women and minorities. Breakthroughs happen when Democrats are around. Once the media establish a story line ­ Dan Quayle is dumb, Al Gore is stiff ­ facts that don’t fit tend to get ignored. “Conservative Texas Republican gives women top jobs” just isn’t the story. The same thing can be observed in the lack of attention to Bush’s appointment of the nation ’s first African‐​American secretary of state. Colin Powell receives respectful media treatment, but there was no orgy of “breakthrough” stories when his appointment was announced.

Second, there’s the issue of liberal bias, not just in the media but among the groups that claim to speak for blacks and women. Successful women and blacks are expected to be outspoken liberals like Estrich and Brazile. When they’re Texas Republicans or moderate Republicans with a military background, they’re just not as much fun to celebrate. And when they’re Margaret Thatcher ­ the first woman to head a major industrial nation but an outspoken conservative who gave feminism no credit for her success ­ they’re not just ignored but attacked. Arguably, the greatest feminist moment of our time was when Her Majesty the Queen summoned the Rt. Hon. Margaret Thatcher to Buckingham Palace and asked her to become Prime Minister of Great Britain. But there were no Woman of the Year covers of Ms. magazine for Thatcher.

Third, there may be something deeper going on. There’s a tendency to celebrate appointments that appear motivated primarily by the race or gender of the appointee. It’s as if the appointee’s actual lack of qualifications becomes his or her claim to celebration. When Bill Clinton named three women in a row as his attorney general, it became painfully obvious that he wasn’t offering Janet Reno as the best‐​qualified lawyer in the country but simply as the best available woman lawyer. Bush may have considered Colin Powell’s race a plus, but no one thinks that if Powell had declined the job, Bush would have searched for other black candidates. Powell got his position by being the best Republican choice for secretary of state.

And somehow that seems to devalue Bush’s decision in terms of diversity. Bush’s two top national security officials are African American, one of them a woman in a job never before held by a woman, much less by a black woman. Why isn’t that a cover story? In a way, it’s good news that it isn’t, a sign that we’re moving beyond race and gender to judge people as individuals. But one wonders if it would be bigger news if a Democratic president made such appointments.

And so with Karen Hughes. Never before has a woman staffer been so central to White House decision‐​making, and yet this historic first remains almost unexamined in the media.

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