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Hughes answers the call

Times Staff Writer

Karen Hughes is talking about her “Thelma and Louise” adventure again. An uprising is spreading across Iraq, and Hughes has been fiercely defending the Bush administration in back-to-back television interviews.

But in a private moment, she relishes the memory of traveling state to state with her buddy Mary Matalin during the 2002 midterm elections, “helping candidates who were running against women or who wanted to reach out to women.”

They scored some victories, helping Missouri Republican Jim Talent defeat Democratic Senate incumbent Jean Carnahan. And they had a very good time.

“I keep calling it our ‘Thelma and Louise’ trip,” Hughes says in her light Texas drawl. “My husband finally told me, ‘Don’t take that analogy too far. Remember what happened to Thelma and Louise. They drove off a cliff.”

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But tonight is no cliffhanger. When Hughes steps up to the podium at a Pasadena Catholic high school, the packed auditorium has the mood of a campaign rally, with Bush signs and T-shirts. The audience is a warm bath of receptivity as Hughes tells “how a normal person like me ended up working at the White House.”

“I’ve always considered myself a normal person,” she says, dressed like a soccer mom on PTA night in a periwinkle blazer, dark slacks and sensible flats. “Except, of course, I have a boss and a friend who became the president of the United States.”

This is the Karen Hughes whose decision to leave the White House in 2002 to move her family home to Texas made her an icon of the struggle to balance career and family. This is also the Karen Hughes whose reappearance in the daily fray, thanks to a book tour for her just-released memoir, “Ten Minutes from Normal,” is being greeted with a collective sigh of relief by Republican strategists worried about Iraq and eager to reach out to female voters.

If some political players wrap themselves in the flag, Hughes has positioned herself in the carpool. Tonight, she laments to the sympathetic crowd of working parents, she is missing her son’s baseball game. But if Hughes is lobbing softballs in Pasadena, Republican strategists have seen her hurl hardballs at everyone from Ann Richards to Al Gore.

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They already see her fingerprints on the decision to portray presumed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry as a waffler and to lob grenades at Richard Clarke, a former anti-terrorism official who said the Bush administration failed to heed signs that Al Qaeda was planning the 9/11 attacks. Hughes is not officially on the payroll until August but says she is speaking to the White House and the campaign staff daily and dining regularly with national security advisor Condoleezza Rice.

“I think everyone is relieved she is taking a more active role,” said David Carney, the White House political director during the presidency of Bush’s father. Carney fondly recalls the days when Hughes was a “vicious attack dog” against a Texas district attorney who was trying to prosecute a Republican U.S. senator for corruption. The days when Hughes was “every day taking a chunk out of” a Texas Democratic challenger. The days when Hughes so effectively helped George W. Bush defeat incumbent Richards in the Texas gubernatorial race in 1994.

“There’s no question that Karen Hughes is desperately needed,” Carney said. “When she left there was a dramatic shift. There was a lack of focus and a lack of direction of what the message was coming out of the White House. With Karen there, they were always on message and everyone in the administration spoke from the same sheet of music. The fact that the president’s campaign has started to really aggressively go after John Kerry is a really good sign.”

Wife, mom, policy-maker

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Keeping the Bush administration firmly “on message” was one quality that made Hughes perhaps the most powerful female advisor in the Bush White House. But in a world where people hype their achievements, Hughes actually seems to be trying to downplay her Amazonian persona.

Instead, Hughes portrays herself as an ordinary person, who “was not on the fast track to the White House.” “Then I went to work for a guy named George,” she tells the Pasadena crowd. “This is all so sudden and so intense there are moments I have to pinch myself it’s so unbelievable.”

Like the “guy named George” -- with his family ties to Big Government, his employment ties to Big Oil, and his membership in the elite fraternities of Yale and Skull and Bones -- Hughes is no ordinary “military brat.” She was born in Paris. Her father, a major general, was the last American governor of the Panama Canal zone.

And unlike Everywoman in America, Hughes stepped away from the White House to a one-year Republican Party consulting contract that earned $140,000, a book advance reportedly worth more than $1 million, and a public speaking schedule of three or four engagements a month at $50,000 each, earning more in a few weeks of part-time work than in a year of government employ.

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Still, many of the people who came to Hughes’ Pasadena book signing say they admire her achievements and identify with her attempts to balance multiple demands and aspirations. “She’s the epitome of today’s career woman who has to juggle between a family and career,” said Nina Chow, a schoolteacher, mother and, like her husband, a Republican. “That’s why she’s an inspiration.”

‘A family-friendly facade’?

Hughes is considered an asset to a White House that is, at the moment, flaunting its feminine side, touting its appointments of women to powerful positions and encouraging First Lady Laura Bush to speak on such things as the plight of Afghan women.

Laura Flanders, the author of a new book highly critical of the White House, “Bushwomen,” contends that the Bush administration is using Hughes and other female appointees to create “a family-friendly facade on an extremist administration ... that is seeking to roll back many of the protections and rights that have helped these women advance.”

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White House senior advisor Karl Rove rejects such characterizations. “Don’t make me the person to go tell Condi Rice and Karen Hughes that they were just mouthpieces and didn’t contribute to policy,” Rove said in an indignant tone a few hours after Rice testified to Congress. “They’re very smart able leaders. Frankly, I think the suggestion that they are token representation is offensive, or ignorant, or both.”

But the Republican Party does hope women like Hughes will appeal to females who vote by a wider margin for Democrats. “She gets it. She gets the women’s vote,” said Susan Combs, the Texas agriculture Commissioner, a pro-choice moderate Republican, and a friend of Hughes. “She gets the power of women. I’m sure that the president is hoping she gets the message out to women. Women don’t find her unapproachable. She’s in grocery stores, pushing a grocery basket. She worries about her husband and kids. And that’s what every woman out there does in America,” Combs said, adding that she is proud Hughes returned to Texas because “family comes first.”

Dianne Thompson, the president of the National Federation of Republican Women, said Hughes is “one of us. She’s a working mom. She’s a wife.”

Suburban women, many who are members of two-career couples, are a coveted swing vote. Some Republican strategists imagine Hughes as a Heartland-bivouacked counterbalance to a White House-bunkered Rove. Some even term Hughes “the Beauty to Rove’s Beast” -- an allusion to Rove’s reputation as the political equivalent of a schoolyard bully. Bush media strategist Mark McKinnon employs a lexicon more akin to men-are-from-Mars, women-are-from Venus.

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“I think Karl is very much sort of an intellectual force and Karen’s an emotional force,” McKinnon said. “Karen’s very instinctive and intuitive, and Karl’s steeped in research and history. Karl is the liaison to the political constituencies. Karen is much more sort of out in her neighborhood and her school, at baseball games.”

Matalin said Bush learned to appreciate strong women from his plain-spoken steel magnolia of a mother, Barbara Bush. And the Bush White House is “making it not just acceptable but manageable to balance our lives,” she said. “We’re past the stage of ‘I am woman, I am stressed out.’ We’re at the stage where ‘I am woman, I want all of it, without having to collapse at the end of the day.’ ”

Almost normal

It is this conflict between family and career that strikes to the heart of Hughes’ popularity. In Pasadena, people rose for the first of several long standing ovations while Hughes was introduced as wife, mother, Sunday schoolteacher ... “a woman you can admire, regardless of your political views.”

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Hughes framed her extraordinary life within the accessible parameters of domestic normalcy: the cat that threw up on the tile, the dog that chewed a messy ink pen on the carpet, the son who hunkers down in incommunicado adolescence, the wryly patient husband who followed her to the Bush White House. “I’d never helped run a country,” she said. “It was intimidating. I was nervous.”

She described Bush too as a quirky, endearing intimate, smiling as she recalled the time “he invented one of his words, ‘misunderestimate,’ the same morning he called the terrorists ‘folks.’ I said, ‘Mr. President, these are trained killers, not folks.’ ”

“If I had one word to describe him,” she said of Bush a few minutes later, “it is engaging.”

Hughes trotted out Bush’s achievements (education reform, Medicare prescription drug coverage), told the audience the president inherited an economy that was “falling into recession,” and explained that U.S. troops went to Iraq because “we had a murderous tyrant who we thought had weapons of mass destruction,” she said.

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“I think it’s important for my family and for everybody’s family to re-elect President Bush,” she concluded.

In Hughes’ book, family comes first, but Hughes also devotes much of her book to detailed accounts of how she crafted and delivered the “message” that helped Bush win the presidency. What she never fully explains are her reasons for her steadfast loyalty to Bush, what exactly was his vision, or why she was so devoted to it. It’s a message that has won Hughes lots of admirers.

“I admire her because I’m a working parent,” said Mary Ruggles, 45, a hip-looking, blue-jeaned Republican single mother of two boys who is “absolutely pro-choice.” “She made her way in the boys’ club on her own terms, and then she gave it up for her family. I don’t see a guy doing that. She seems to be pulling it off pretty well.”

It’s President Bush’s cliffhanger Ruggles is worried about. “Iraq is in really bad shape,” she said. “I’d like Karen to take a message back to handle this very carefully. This is make or break for him.”

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Times staff researcher Robin Mayper contributed to this report.


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