Master of the Message

Fiercely loyal Karen P. Hughes makes sure the president always looks and sounds his best - and stays on point.

April 04, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - George W. Bush had pretty much decided by the end of 1998 that he wanted to run for president. He had sought - and received - the blessing of his parents and his wife and daughters.

But there was one other person he wanted to be on board with him. He told Karen P. Hughes, his closest aide since he first ran for governor in 1994, he wouldn't go to Washington without her.

Two and a half months into the Bush presidency, it's clear why. The 5-foot-10 former TV reporter with the Texas-sized voice, the piercing blue eyes, and the president's ear is Bush's virtual alter ego, prepping him for every photo op and speech, orchestrating his every move while on the road and bestowing on him the kind of ferocious loyalty that this president so keenly values.

Having successfully managed the image and tone of Bush's presidential campaign - where her steely, almost robotic adherence to message precluded the kind of off-the-record guidance and color political aides typically supply reporters - the aggressive, fiercely protective Hughes is performing a similar function now.

As counselor to the president, she is the most senior, and most powerful, female aide to any president in U.S. history.

"It's hard to imagine the president without her," says Mark McKinnon, the campaign media adviser who is still a consultant to Bush.

From her second-floor office, Hughes, 44, boasts a portfolio both expansive and influential, one rivaled only perhaps by the president's chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., his political strategist, Karl Rove, and Vice President Dick Cheney.

The nickname-granting president calls Hughes the "High Prophet," or more often just "Prophet." It is a play on her maiden name, Parfitt, but more to the point, a nod to his faith in her as all-knowing.

When Bush discussed with Hughes the job of counselor to the president, historically a loosely defined job, she asked him which of the zillions of daily meetings in the West Wing she should attend. He told her: "The meetings where major decisions are made."

What's more, Hughes is responsible for overseeing the communications, press secretary, speechwriting and media affairs offices.

"Forget what is hers on paper," says Mary Matalin, a top aide to Cheney and a Bush family loyalist. "She's a force of nature. Even stuff outside her realm she gets done. She is involved in everything - starting with every utterance. Whatever is the spoken word of this administration emanates from Karen."

Hughes reviews, and sometimes heavily edits and rewrites, every speech or statement that Bush makes - generally four to six a day. She even travels with him on most trips, which is unusual for someone in her position.

Last Thursday, she spent much of the morning in the Oval Office preparing the president for that day's press conference, briefing him with a two-page list of likely questions she had compiled - and the suggested answers - and spent much of the late afternoon helping Bush rehearse the speech he would make that night before the Radio & Television Correspondents Association.

The weekend before Bush's first major address to a joint session of Congress in February, she hovered over a computer at Camp David, turning an early draft of the speech upside-down, while her husband and 13-year-old son, Robert, relaxed at the scenic Western Maryland retreat.

Except for the fact that her day now begins at 7:15 with the chief of staff's meeting, Hughes, who hasn't lived anywhere but Texas since 1969, says she feels comfortable in her new, august surroundings.

Still, she has looked to previous presidential advisers for guidance, including George Stephanopoulos of the Clinton administration and Margaret Tutwiler, a key aide in the first Bush administration who agreed to work beside Hughes for several months.

"I realized there was a lot about Washington and the White House I did not know," Hughes says in an interview in her office.

Reads his mind

But one thing she did know was the mind of George W. Bush. Their connection is so strong that some observers say it seems almost telekinetic. "She, better than anybody else, understands his vision and how he communicates," says McKinnon.

As Bush's press secretary in Texas and on the presidential campaign trail, Hughes "literally would sit in press conferences lip-synching the words and finishing his sentences," McKinnon says.

When Bush became disenchanted with the writer hired to pen his autobiography in 1999, Hughes took over, sitting by the pool at her Austin home and cranking out "A Charge to Keep" in a month.

She laughs the loudest at Bush's jokes. But, always addressing him as "Sir," she also tells the president when she thinks he's making a mistake - even if it's only in his choice of tie. As proof of her commitment to giving her boss what she calls her "unvarnished opinion," she keeps a block of unfinished wood on her desk.

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