Karen Hughes, the Power Behind the Curtain


Senior presidential adviser Karen Hughes may be the most powerful woman everin U.S. politics, but the major media don’t treat her that way. They spilleda lot of ink on politicos such as Hillary Clinton, Rosalynn Carter, andEleanor Roosevelt--and still do. Yet the woman from Texas is largelyignored. How come?

Hughes was one of three top aides to George W. Bush in the Texas governor’smansion. Along with Karl Rove, she has shaped Bush’s agenda, politicalstrategy, and communications. She wrote his autobiography. During thecampaign she hired two experienced Washington press secretaries, and firedone. Observers say that when Bush speaks in public, her lips move alongwith his. She is the most powerful shaper of the words and message of apresident of the United States whose own command of the language seemsweaker than average.

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

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

You could make a good case that that title should go to Edith Bolling GaltWilson, who was effectively the acting president during President WoodrowWilson’s illness. Eleanor Roosevelt was not only an influence on PresidentFranklin Delano Roosevelt but a public figure and leader of left-liberals inand out of the administration. Other First Ladies such as Rosalynn Carterand Nancy Reagan have been powerful influences on their husbands, andHillary Clinton was probably the first presidential spouse to be a keyadviser in her husband’s inner circle of strategists.

Moving beyond First Ladies, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wields a great dealof power as the swing vote on a sharply divided Supreme Court. But intheory, at least, the Supreme Court is non-political, so we’ll disqualifyher. Ditto for former top diplomat Madeleine Albright.

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

Sometimes behind-the-scenes players have more real power than electedofficials. Susan Estrich was the first woman to manage a major presidentialcampaign, when she took over the Michael Dukakis campaign in 1988 aftercampaign manager John Sasso was fired for the apparently unacceptablepractice 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 profilein the Washington Post Style section. But after Dukakis plunged from a17-point lead over Vice President George Bush, Sasso was brought back to tryto salvage the campaign.

In 1993, the first female White House press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, got3,137 words in her Style profile, even though the article noted that “thejob isn't quite what it used to be. She makes less money and has a lessertitle (deputy assistant to the president rather than assistant) than pastpress secretaries. She briefs reporters in the mornings and afternoons butshe is not the only briefer. Once a day, communications directorStephanopoulos delivers the message while Myers sits on the sidelines andobserves.”

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

So where are the profiles of Karen Hughes? The first woman ever at the topof a winning presidential campaign and at the heart of a White House remainsunknown to most Americans. No Style profile yet, though during the campaignshe shared one with Rove and campaign manager Joe Allbaugh. Meanwhile, themedia 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 andRep. Nita Lowey on the cover for being the new chairs of the Senate andHouse Democratic fundraising committees. But there’s been no cover forKaren Hughes.

There are three reasons why Hughes hasn’t received more attention--and whyBush hasn’t received more credit for giving a woman unprecedented power inthe White House.

First, it doesn’t fit the story line. Conservative Texas Republicans don’tmake breakthroughs for women and minorities. Michael Dukakis, Al Gore ­sure, liberal Democrats are supposed to have diverse staffs, and so theirappointments of Estrich and Brazile were the focus of media attention. Itconfirmed a media story line Democrats are progressive and committed to theadvancement of women and minorities. Breakthroughs happen when Democratsare around. Once the media establish a story line ­ Dan Quayle is dumb, AlGore is stiff ­ facts that don’t fit tend to get ignored. “ConservativeTexas Republican gives women top jobs” just isn’t the story. The same thingcan be observed in the lack of attention to Bush’s appointment of the nation’s first African-American secretary of state. Colin Powell receivesrespectful media treatment, but there was no orgy of “breakthrough” storieswhen his appointment was announced.

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

Third, there may be something deeper going on. There’s a tendency tocelebrate appointments that appear motivated primarily by the race or genderof the appointee. It’s as if the appointee’s actual lack of qualificationsbecomes his or her claim to celebration. When Bill Clinton named threewomen in a row as his attorney general, it became painfully obvious that hewasn’t offering Janet Reno as the best-qualified lawyer in the country butsimply as the best available woman lawyer. Bush may have considered ColinPowell’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 hisposition 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 thema 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, asign that we’re moving beyond race and gender to judge people asindividuals. But one wonders if it would be bigger news if a Democraticpresident made such appointments.

And so with Karen Hughes. Never before has a woman staffer been so centralto White House decision-making, and yet this historic first remains almostunexamined in the media.