The single most influential adviser to the president of the United States is going home to Texas with her family to live a simpler life. Perhaps Andy Card, the White House chief of staff, says it best: “Oh, God.”
It is dawn. Inside the white house, there is a purposeful bustle—preparations for another day’s exercise of executive authority.
Coffee is brewing in a galley kitchen. A man straightens up a sitting room near the entrance portico where guests are received. On the street outside, an empty green Mazda idles, pumping steamy exhaust into 19-degree air, an early-March day that happens to be the coldest of the year in Washington. There is a layer of frost on the lawn that crunches underfoot.
The house is a two-story colonial of whitewashed brick on an idyllic suburban street whose occupant—just now slipping into a purple suit in an upstairs bedroom—is the most powerful woman in America. Across the hall, a fifteen-year-old boy is catching his last precious moments of sleep. She hates leaving before he gets up, but that’s the pattern they’ve fallen into.
I pull the door knocker and let it fall. A chilly moment later, a gray-haired man with unkempt hair and a long, gentle face answers. “Sure, come on in. She’s not ready quite yet.”
Jerry Hughes fixes me a cup of coffee, checks the clock—6:51 a.m.—and looks tentatively up the hallway stairs as we make our way to a couch in the living room.
“She’ll be just a few more minutes,” he whispers, padding around silently in his slippers and sweats. Jerry, an out-of-work lawyer in a town of lawyers, says that his first winter weekday chore is to warm up Karen’s car and then make coffee; that once she leaves, he’ll wake their son, Robert, and get him ready for his day at St. Albans, Washington’s tony private boys’ academy; and that this life at home is fine by him, though he’s looking for work. A real estate lawyer who used to run a solo practice in Austin, he says he’s not “a big-firm guy” as we sink into the couch, “and, you know, it’s tough getting something here with all the conflict-of-interest laws.” Then he tells a story about “this Asian guy in line at the D. C. motor-vehicle bureau, where I was getting our new plates, ’cause we still have Virginia plates even though we live in Washington now, and, you know, the delays were just amazing. Someone butted in and he just went kinda craaaazy .” He shakes his head, and then he laughs about being “a scofflaw, because, you know, I got the new plates, but it’s just too darn cold to put them on this morning.”
He sits for a moment, looking to sum up the morning, his daily routine as unheralded house husband to a uniquely consequential woman. “You know, it’s been a lot to just get the family settled over the past year,” he says, almost in a whisper.
He was divorced with a daughter when he met a bumptious, laser-brained TV reporter out of Fort Worth in 1981. Now he’s watching his forty-five-year-old wife burst forth into boundless possibility as he, at sixty-three, seems in an autumnal drift.
He is measured in his speech, and after a bit, he quietly says that “Karen has been so busy for so long” that “Robert and I have gotten used to it. Now she’s just under so much pressure.”
Of course, it’s been this way since she hooked up with George W. Bush in 1994, and he’s dutifully supported his wife’s rise and sustained her as best he can. Jerry seems to take his family’s power imbalance in stride.
Thump, thump down the stairs. The portico fills with purple: Karen Hughes, smiling a little nervously, and dressed nicely, conservatively, such that her clothes are not an issue. Her thick, silvery hair, same as the president’s, is neatly brushed back. Her eyes are blue, dimples deep. She is attractive, and softer than she appears on TV.
Jerry wants to finish the story about the line at motor vehicles, so Karen lets that proceed, and then she mentions that Jerry is looking for work but that “it’s so hard with the conflict-of-interest laws. . . .”
I look at them both, and they look at me, and then all of us seem to look at the glass coffee table, where Muslim scholar Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? is atop a stack of must-reads. Then no one says anything.
“So, let’s get out of the house! Get going! ” Karen shouts finally, like a fire captain after the crossbeam collapses. She grabs her travel cup, and in a moment we’re safe in her prewarmed green Mazda 626 with a dirty dish in the backseat and its scofflaw plates—speeding down MacArthur Boulevard toward Georgetown, into the vortex of power. She’s punching on NPR, listening intently to a report about seven soldiers dying in a firefight in the Afghan hills.
“This is my time to ramp up, to get focused,” she says absently as the car veers in and out of traffic. Her demeanor seems to clamp down, and her face hardens.
Six weeks later, Karen Hughes would resign from her post at the White House, effective in July. She will not be replaced. On this point, Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, told me, “The president’s in a state of denial.” And he told me this: “The whole balance of the place, the balance of what has worked up to now for George Bush, is gone, simply gone.”
KNOW HER AND YOU KNOW HIM. Consider them, mandarins in the White House would whisper, as though they are one person. Andrew Card says that they have a “mystical bond.”
“She and my husband have the same great instinct, the same gut,” the First Lady told me the week before Hughes announced her resignation. “A lot of it has to do with his mother,” she says. “Now I’m really putting him on the couch—he’ll hate this.” She describes how the death of his younger sister, Robin, at the age of three, prompted seven-year-old George to want to replace her, to be his mother’s best friend, to ease her pain. He became Barbara’s boy, often passing up baseball with the gang to stay with her, lore having it that he would stand at the front door in Midland and say, Can’t right now, fellas, I have to play with my mom. It developed in him “a sensitivity,” Laura Bush says, though “it’s completely subconscious,” and a kinship with strong, frank, “very natural” women like Barbara and Karen.
Does this preponderance of women in high places, I ask, send a message to the country and the wider world about what America represents? Laura Bush is coy, even conflicted in response, just like almost everyone in the White House. “Not an intentional message,” she says. “How important a woman’s voice is to everything, we know that. This is an affirmation of what we already know.”
The fact that Karen Hughes’s extraordinary role largely went overlooked is testimony to blind spots on both the Left and the Right. The Left, after all, is loath to acknowledge that its long-held dream for a woman to have such power—in this case leading a sorority of more senior staff and Cabinet-level women than in any administration in U. S. history—has somehow occurred on a Republican watch. On the Right, the dilemma is no less piquant: Conservatives embrace a gender-neutral fantasy in which no one even notices whether it is a man or a woman who is the “best-qualified person” because they don’t deal in quotas. Yes, it’s a good thing that women are now atop some snow-capped peaks of the most powerful country on earth. But, goes this line of thinking, it’s purely incidental.
In the middle ground, at nearly six feet tall in flats, stands Karen Hughes, who says that of course she wasn’t selected for her job because she is a woman, but, yes, it makes one hell of a difference that she is one. “I might come at things a little differently than a man, no doubt, but I’m a little uncomfortable being a symbol,” she says. “It’s inevitable, I suppose—it’s both an opportunity and an obligation—but I never wanted that.”
Never wanting much of anything for oneself is central to the Bush ethos—an ambling, aw-shucks mien resting on the quiet conviction that good things come to people who don’t want them too ardently. Easy to say if you happen to be the son of a president, but even for those not similarly advantaged, a subtly affecting posture. Karen Hughes has been the most noble avatar of this ideal. So much so that for someone of her stature, she has remained somewhat obscure: born in Paris, her father a military man who became the last governor of the Panama Canal Zone, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Southern Methodist, TV reporter become Republican activist.
And now it is in the national interest to know what Karen Hughes has been doing for the president of the United States, for the country, over the past extraordinary year, so that it is clear what will be lost when she leaves Washington this month.
In short, she has had an unlimited portfolio.
Mark McKinnon, Bush’s media adviser and close confidant, puts it this way: “President Bush often says that the most striking difference between being governor and president is the volume of decision making. There are a hundred decisions he has to make every day, big decisions, with a lot riding on each one. So he’ll give twenty of them to Karen to make. He trusts her completely. He trusts her like he trusts no one.”
What this means is beyond easy measure. The force she has exerted on events large and small, day to day, could fill a wing of a presidential library. Strictly from the point of structure and routine, she has a large, discernible fiefdom of forty-five staffers in the communications realm, spreading across all the major agencies and the White House. There is a daily morning communications meeting with press secretary Ari Fleischer, Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke, and the rest in her large second-floor corner office in the West Wing. By then, Hughes has already met with the president and the senior staff. She will sometimes talk to the president a dozen times in a day.
“Every president needs someone who will tell them the truth, unvarnished, and a lot of them haven’t really had that,” says Mary Matalin, who was political director for the first President Bush’s reelection campaign and is now counselor to the vice-president. “Karen is not only the one person who does that around here, she does it in front of other people. The president clearly loves it . . . that they’re not afraid to disagree or even insult each other. It’s amazing.”
McKinnon recalls that “on the day before the Inauguration, I was at Blair House with Karen, Andy Card, and President Bush when he pointed to Karen and told everyone, ‘I don’t want any important decision made without her in the room.’ ”
And so it has been, across a year of stunning transformation. To think where this presidency was when Bush murmured that edict: grasping a barely legitimate mandate, beset with public doubts.
It’s now clear that Karen Hughes took things in her capable hands from the first. The president’s address to Congress a month after he entered office provides a convenient marker. It was a group affair, lots of cooks, with Bush himself guiding its construction. A week or so before the speech was to be given, Hughes marched into the Oval Office and said, as she recalls, “This is totally unacceptable.” She insisted they immediately “get out of here,” which they did, racing off to Camp David for a weekend of grueling rewrites.
That speech, the first major address after the Inaugural, was well received, especially Bush’s language of tax cuts: “The people of America have been overcharged, and on their behalf, I am here asking for a refund.” A Karen Hughes original, and a nascent step up the parapet for a president in the making.
“She can literally manufacture him, the only one who can do it,” says Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director and Hughes’s right-hand man. “She knows how he talks, but also how he thinks. It’s like they’re one person. Over time, people have understood that if you have an idea, a proposal, Karen better like it or it won’t have a chance in any event.”
On September 11, with the president absent from Washington, it was Hughes who stood before the country and said, “Your federal government continues to function effectively.”
Then, as events unfurled, she managed the president’s greatest speech—the September 20 address to Congress, which truly transformed his political career—while at the same time creating the Coalition Information Center, a coordinated global message machine that has proved to be one of the most successful efforts of the U. S. wartime engagement. When a Brit working with the CIC mentioned the latest woes of Afghan women, Hughes got an idea. Hence the Afghan women’s initiative, a campaign that created policies to protect and elevate women in Afghanistan and secure their representation in the country’s new government. It was also a potent piece of propaganda to sell the war to the progressive West: Never mind that harsh conditions and burqas predated the Taliban—we were liberators.
As 2001 ended and domestic policy elbowed its way back onto the agenda, a jalopy of economic policies—tax cuts, stimulus plans, programs to ensure some amorphous ideal of “economic security”—clanged toward Congress. There are “experts” in all these areas who sit at giant mahogany tables and claim authorship of policy. But that’s not really the way it works in this White House. The president is not a wonk; he is often defenseless against wonks, which means sometimes they can leave him confused and uncertain. And a confused and uncertain program was about to be unveiled in the president’s major economic address on January 22 in Charleston, West Virginia. This is where Hughes’s abilities were most vividly displayed, says chief of staff Andrew Card: “Moments when we need to distill everything to essentials, she takes what the policy wonks and experts say and puts it into a language everyone can share, a language of action.”
Mary Matalin recalls sitting in Hughes’s office with David Frum—the big-brained conservative economist and author who, in those days, was bigfooting around the White House as a presidential speechwriter. Frum had authored the big address about big ideas, which Hughes was reading quizzically, then sourly.
She pursed her lips and, for a moment, simmered, trapping steam. “Economic security . . . economic security,” Hughes murmured. “It doesn’t mean anything!” She can get loud, really loud. Matalin says that she and Frum were pinned to their chairs, silent. Then another explosion. “Jobs! That’s all people know. That’s what they care about. Jobs!” And then Hughes spun around to her keyboard. Outcome: The speech was a roaring success, and Frum soon quietly resigned from the White House. (It didn’t help when his wife’s e-mail boast that her husband wrote the “axis of evil” line became public—a breach of the Bush-Hughes code of silence.)
In January, as a draft of this year’s State of the Union address was circulating, all hands on deck awaited Hughes’s verdict. Finally, the phone rang. “You’re not going to do what you did to me last year, are you?” George W. Bush asked her.
“No,” Karen Hughes responded, laughing. “You’ve made a lot of progress.”
“DAMMIT! HOW THE HELL did that happen?” Moments after parking the Mazda, she’s hovering over Dan Bartlett, seated in his little office, which adjoins hers, clutching his Washington Post. It’s 7:22 a.m. And there it is: a leaked story on the front page about the president’s decision to levy an import tax on steel. The president was due to announce the tariff—a stunning departure from his free-trade stance, designed to buoy the declining U. S. steel industry and win over the steelworkers union—at a dinnertime press conference. This would have allowed a White House SWAT team to fan out, as planned, through Congress, to various agencies, and to industry lobbyists to quietly explain the whys and wherefores, ease concerns, and cut deals with those who will be aggrieved—and there will be plenty, especially on the Right. That’s all now blown by PostM reporter Mike Allen’s scoop, turning what was to be this day’s carefully controlled burn into a raging blaze.
“Yeah, Mike called me late last night. Who knows how he got it,” says Dan sheepishly.
Hughes hates when this happens. She’ll want to find out where the leak came from—she’s good at that—but it can wait till later. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s visit in the midst of an exploding Mideast today means the world’s eyes will be on the two leaders at their 5:00 p.m. joint press conference. “You saw the Mubarak talking points?” Dan asks.
“Yeah, they were terrible ,” she snaps. “Just nothing there. Nothing! God knows, we have to work on that.”
And then she’s gone, speed-walking down the stairs to the 7:30 a.m. senior staff meeting with adviser Karl Rove, Andy Card, Condoleezza Rice—eighteen in all, eight of whom are women—gathered in the ornate Roosevelt Room next to the Oval Office, the first of a trio of morning briefings that culminate in a huddle of the inner circle—she, Rove, and Card—with the president at 9:05. After a morning of briefings, this is the ready-set-go launch of activities and messages for the day.
At midmorning, she has a meeting with congressional Republicans and the president in the conference room next to the Oval Office. The Democrats are furious over the “shadow government” of handpicked midlevel bureaucrats who, it turns out, are in place to run the country in case of catastrophe. Senate Democrats, led by Majority Leader Tom Daschle, say they were not informed; press conferences are airing on CNN, and letters have been sent to newspapers, all of it a potential black eye for the president if he’s seen as acting in a partisan way on issues of national security. Hughes is fierce in her denials to the press. She crafts her own response, saying the secretary of the Senate was informed and blaming the senators’ surprise on their lack of adequate internal procedures.
“Jerry, what a nice surprise,” chirps Krista Ritacco, Hughes’s assistant, as he enters the office in a blue suit. “She’s still at a meeting. You want to just hang out in her office?”
Jerry nods. He almost never drops by—once every few months—so it’s a special event. He looks around the office and settles into a green chair beside the couch, under a wall of framed pictures of his wife and the president.
After a moment of small talk, he starts in about how “it’s not been going so well for us here in Washington, for me or Robert,” but that “Karen is happier being at the center of things.”
He sketches out a chronology of the changes over the past few years in which Karen has been the actor and he mostly the spectator, starting with the Florida ballot battle. Karen was on national television nearly every day as a proxy for Bush, who was sequestered on the ranch in Texas.
“After that,” Jerry says, “she was getting stopped on the street . . . and everything changed,” but the pace of the months since September 11 has been “like 150 times as intense as Florida.” Their last vacation was for just a few days during the Christmas holidays in Austin, and “that’s just not enough.”
We talk for a few minutes about how status-conscious Washington is, how transactional so many relationships can be, how “it’s sometimes tricky to know what people are after.” He starts in about how he doesn’t fit with the legal life of the town. He says, “I’m not, to be frank, exactly sure what I want to do.”
Part of me wants to answer with a kind of frankness about the known mendacities of Washington, the take-from-it-what-you-can-and-don’t-ask-too-many-questions rules of engagement that would impel any firm to hire him in a second, give him a corner office, a secretary, and a $500,000 salary, simply because his wife is Karen Hughes. Why? Paying him would be like paying her, for whatever that may bring in terms of access, or the presumption of access, in a town where access to power is the commodity.
“Jerry, wow, I didn’t know you’d be here.” She seems delighted but immediately picks up the phone, holds it near her ear, and starts talking to him as though she’s on hold. “So, did you go to that, um, meeting . . . ?”
She’s searching around for USA Freedom Corps, a group whose meeting Jerry came to attend, for which 150 people gathered in the Old Executive Office Building. Jerry is interested in this, in maybe getting involved in the president’s volunteer initiative.
Karen is nodding, half listening, phone at her ear, and Jerry pushes forward nonetheless, talking about the meeting.
“. . . So then, he got up and spoke to us,” Jerry says.
“Really, that’s great. Who? Who spoke?” she asks absently.
“The President of the United States!” says Jerry, soft-spoken no more, glaring at her.
The phone quickly returns to its cradle. She sits in her chair, all ears—offering her undivided attention—and notices a forlorn English muffin with a fried egg that Krista ordered from the kitchen at 8:30 a.m., untouched, just under her nose. She grabs it and tears off an edge of the cold muffin while she listens to her husband. She’s starving. You can see her gaze tighten, her brain fire to attention. The managers of this volunteer initiative are countless notches beneath her on the power food chain, but she draws some names from her memory. “Jerry, ahh, the director of the Freedom Corps, John Bridgeland—I’m sure he spoke at this meeting—well, you know we know him. Remember meeting him? Did you go up and introduce yourself?”
Jerry slumps in his chair, looking sour. “No, you know I don’t like doing that sort of thing.” Of course, unearned rewards are a sort of currency around Washington, but Jerry’s too decent. “I’ll just make my own way on the thing,” he says under his breath.
Painful silence, and then it’s time to change subjects.
“How ’bout lunch?” Karen bounds up from behind the desk, and in a moment the three of us are lunching in her second-floor office overlooking the First Family’s palatial living quarters.
Around the coffee table, we eat. With Krista holding calls, it’s quiet, and they talk in a gentle call and response about the transience of their lives here, how they moved in July from a rented house in northern Virginia to their current home, which they are renting from Margaret Tutwiler, a stylish Washington fixture who is now the ambassador to Morocco. There have been a few nice perks—an event at Ford’s Theatre, Christmas at the White House, Karen’s opportunities to take Texas friends on personal White House tours—but they feel otherwise obtuse in the high-end social life of Washington. “One thing,” Jerry says, crunching some romaine lettuce, “is that the few parties we go to, everything is catered. Nobody cooks. My God, how much people must spend on that food!” This sends Karen on a riff about two dinner parties she had at their house this past fall—where “I actually cooked, believe that!” and portentous guests like Secretary Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Rice (who lives alone and hadn’t had a home-cooked meal in three months) mixed unself-consciously with neighbors from up and down the street. Of course, their stories are dense with code, bespeaking a cultural, remember-the-Alamo stand that Karen, Jerry, and any number of displaced Texans are attempting to make against the veritable Santa Anna hoard of D. C. sophisticates. It’s something that people from the outer provinces get over after two or three years—these neat culture-war designations not wearing well under the complexities of actual human contact—but Jerry and Karen, having had only modest interaction with the locals, are not quite there yet.
And in a way, they’re afraid of ever getting there, afraid of giving up some right-minded, right-thinking Texas essence, especially as they look upon their only son. Robert, after all, arrived last September as a new kid in the ninth grade of St. Albans School, the elite, wealthy boys’ academy with jackets and ties, deep pockets, and a moral code that makes it a bit like serving your adolescence in the U. S. Senate. Robert, by all accounts a bright, quiet, well-mannered fifteen-year-old with a temperament much like his father’s, has managed to make a few friends and plays on the JV baseball team but is falling something short of what a typical teenager would consider happy.
All this is discussed now in muted tones as lunch is finished. “It’s hard to imagine what Robert must be up against,” says Karen in a soft voice of concern. Jerry nods.
And then Krista ducks her head back in. Karen looks up as though snapping out of a trance. The afternoon becomes a fever dream of governance, culminating in a telephone call with Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s right-hand man—often called the deputy prime minister—and Hughes’s peer. She lets Campbell in on a secret, that she’ll be leading a major U. S. delegation to Afghanistan next month, the kind of thing generally reserved for secretaries of state.
Tomorrow she leaves for Missouri to offer her growing profile in support of Jim Talent in that state’s senate race—the way a vice-president might—and then she’s off to California to keynote Fortune magazine’s celebration of the one hundred most powerful women in America.
“Yes, they’ve decided they want me to be a bit more public, and that’s fine, I suppose,” she says, overcoat on, packing her bag with notebooks, speeches, and confidential memos.
Karl Rove, President Bush’s cerebral political adviser and other top Texas aide, has sent over four books on presidential power for Hughes to read on her trip. She flips through them—giant, ponderous books—skims them for a few seconds, tosses three on the floor in the corner, and halfheartedly shoves the fourth into her blue bag with the presidential seal. “I don’t know why he gives me these things,” she mutters. “At this point, I think I have a pretty good idea of how power really operates.”
KAREN HUGHES’S KITCHEN TABLE is a three-foot-wide disk of laminated wood on a metal pedestal that sits about six feet from the fridge. It is where Jerry and Robert so often eat alone and where keys and newspapers and mail are left; it’s the place where things collect.
The last two weeks in March turn out to be an odd time. Robert, by virtue of being a member of the St. Albans baseball team, is spending spring break playing in baseball tournaments and catching some sun in Florida.
It is rare that Robert is away while Jerry and Karen are both home, and the rented house is quiet and creaky. Jerry takes the opportunity to make dinner later than usual, to wait for Karen to get home, and afterward they talk long and late at the kitchen table in tones informed by this grant of solitude.
If, as Tolstoy famously said, all happy families are the same and all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, then the Hughes family is unhappy in a particularly Washington way. The town is filled, after all, with people not from around here who yearn for someplace far away—a place that is often glorified at a distance—and many end up returning. It is a town of easy friendships easily abandoned. Yet here—like elsewhere—the new roots tend to take hold after about eighteen months. People who study this sort of thing point to some human rhythm that responds to a second changing of seasons—that second spring or summer—when people decide whether they are of a place, or just visiting.
Jerry and Karen wrestle with that designation at the kitchen table. Jerry says he’s of the mind that “a place changes you, nothing stays the same,” and that month by month, they’re growing further and further away from Austin. “It won’t be easy to return,” he recalls saying, “and it will be harder to return the longer we stay.”
Karen has to agree. They’d looked to sell their house there when they relocated to Washington, but the Austin housing market was soft, so they rented it instead. Now their home beckons.
Then there’s the renewal form for St. Albans. Has to be in by May 1, only a month off. Karen thinks at odd times about the renewal form, the gravity of it—another year, tenth grade.
Then, of course, there is this underlying state of affairs: Jerry and Robert are both miserable.
So it happens that on this night in late March, sitting at the little wooden disk of a table, Karen says, “I really think we all want to go home to Texas.” And at that moment, she says, she felt a tiny recalibration of her machinery: “It was a relief for me to finally say it out loud.”
Jerry smiles, surprised. “I didn’t think you’d say it.” He, after all, couldn’t say it. It was her call to make.
So now it’s out. But Karen is a member of another family—the First Family—and that means it’s not just her family she has to think about but also her beloved Bushes and, by association, every family represented by the president—which is everyone. So as Karen flies off to Peru and other Latin American countries with the leader of the free world—and Jerry stays home, alone, knocking around the empty house—this statement of bold intention sits untouched, right next to the unopened mail.
Two weeks later, Doug Fletcher just happens to be passing through town. Fletcher is the senior pastor at Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin, a church where Karen is an “elder” and Jerry a lay leader. This is not a passive relationship of the traditional long-distance variety; since September 11, many of the church’s twenty-four hundred members have been sending letters of support—boxes of them—to the Hughes family, wishing them strength and faith. On October 28, when Karen Hughes was deep in combat with absolute evil, she managed to travel to Westlake Hills for three days of intimate, heart-baring, meet-and-greet events—speeches, luncheons, coffee klatches—about the role of faith in her life.
“I think it was divine intervention that sent me,” says Fletcher. “It was clearly for a larger purpose that I was sent there.”
Specifically, to an intimate dinner on Friday night at Fletcher’s brother’s house in Washington. After dinner, Karen confides to him that they are “actually thinking about leaving.”
Fletcher knows a pastoral moment is nigh, so he swirls in tighter, having lunch with Jerry on Monday, and then that night arriving at the little white house for what he knows is “a chance to let them come to some decision, all together. Karen agreed that God sent me here to be with them on this very night.” Jerry cooks chicken, Karen sweeps in after work, Robert finishes his homework early. And after the dishes are cleared, they sit at the dining-room table to hash it all out.
Fletcher asks everyone to “list the pros and cons of staying here in Washington, and there, no doubt, were some pros.” Karen, he figures, should go first—”because Karen starting things would permit everyone else to speak freely”—and she does, and then Robert, then Jerry. As their spiritual adviser, Fletcher says, he can’t reveal what was said by whom, beyond noting that what they all discuss and decide that night “says something important about family, but also about power, what you do with power when you have it, and what real power is in the context of faith. That to chase after power is not in itself ultimately satisfying. Karen never enjoyed the perks of power. Jerry didn’t, either. Karen served to be faithful and steadfast . . . and now she is being faithful to herself and her family.” And, finally, there are hugs, and then there is nothing else to talk about.
Karen wakes up the next morning suffused with purpose. She pushes through the next two days’ crises, managing all, while rehearsing what would be said, turning lines over in her head. On Wednesday, April 17, she and Andy Card are in the Oval Office after lunch, shepherding along Hugh Sidey, Time magazine’s venerable presidential columnist, who interviews Bush and then is shown out. They talk to the president for a bit about strategic issues—the Mideast, Afghanistan, homeland defense—and after half an hour, they are also at the doorway. Hughes tells Card that he should go on, that she has something to talk to the president about, and she goes back in.
It’s a sparkling spring afternoon, and the president is getting ready to walk the dogs. Hughes doesn’t hesitate. “Mr. President,” she says, “I love you, but my family and I want to go back to Texas.” He’s stunned, quizzical, and they pass silently out through the French doors onto the patio and then the manicured grass.
He says, “I know your family is a priority, always have,” and then they walk with the dogs and talk easily for a while, just the two of them. They have come so far to this place, to this sun-swept lawn. “You know, I think you’re a good person,” he says quietly, but they don’t hug, because she doesn’t want to cry.
A half hour later, Andrew Card’s line is ringing. He’s busy, but it’s urgent. His assistant ducks her head in. Karen says he has to come to her office immediately.
One floor up and due east, they are in Hughes’s office, door shut.
He puts his head in his hands and says, “Oh, God.”
She starts to explain, and Andy slips immediately into now-hold-on-a-minute mode.
“I’m thinking, This doesn’t have to happen,” Card recalls. “I said, ‘We need a friend for Robert? We can get a friend for Robert!’ ”
Then he backs off. People do what they do for good reasons, and if Hughes has decided it’s time to leave, then he needs to respect that decision. Even if it seems, well, precipitous.
So Card listens. “I felt like I was hit with a brick,” he says.
The First Lady is informed, and Dan Bartlett—who, Hughes says, “needs to know so he can start getting ready to move up”—and that’s it. Card and Hughes join the president for the weekend at Camp David, where Card takes her aside and tells her she’ll need to inform the staff and make some sort of announcement. “It’s going to leak out,” he tells her, “and then there will be wild speculation about why you’re doing it. You don’t want that. You need to tell people.”
The senior staff meeting at 7:30 a.m. on the following Tuesday, April 23, proceeds like all the others; they happen each day. There’s a protocol to cover everything, as eighteen people make a brief offering of what is happening today in their realm. Last up is Josh Bolten, the deputy chief of staff, who is going on at length about legislative strategy.
Andy checks his watch—7:58. He taps his fingers— come on, Josh . . . finish up —then breaks in. “Karen has something to say.” People turn, unaware. She tells the staff.
“They were stunned,” Card says. “Half of them wanted to applaud. Half wanted to cry.”
The press conference is two hours later. Hughes, under the lights, kicks into message mode. “This is a family-friendly decision,” she says. And that’s essentially the headline in The Washington Post and papers across the country.
To various news establishments, Hughes says that she’ll continue to guide the president; it’s just a change of venue. Sure, she won’t be involved in the day-to-day decisions, but she’ll fly up to Washington every few weeks and be in regular phone contact with anyone who needs her at the White House, including the president. Some commentators shrug that it’s a “having it all” moment, that she’s getting to do what she wants, on her own terms. Empowerment, of a sort.
A day later, Karen Hughes is off to the ranch in Crawford with the president for a crucial meeting with Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. On the way, there’s a stop in South Dakota, and she calls: “Look, I have a great boss who’s allowing me to work for him in a way that works for me. . . . I expect my role to be an active one. . . . I’ll be building up a lot of frequent-flier mileage. . . . We really haven’t worked out all the details yet,” she finally says in a moment of uncharacteristic uncertainty as Air Force One prepares to depart. “Some of it I guess we’re just going to have to figure out as we go.”
ACTUALLY, THAT JOB BELONGS to Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, who is sitting on the couch in his squash-court-sized office looking grim. It’s been six days since Hughes informed the public of her departure, and Card is just beginning to reckon with the fact that Hughes’s departure “could be a turning point for this administration. Going forward, it will be different. I have to make sure it is good different and not bad different.”
I had talked with Card a few weeks before about how integral—how utterly indispensable—Karen Hughes was to everything that works, each day and year to year, for this president. As someone who knows history and who has served under every Republican chief of staff since 1983, he was definitive in highlighting the peculiarity of the whole situation. “It’s really odd for the most trusted old hand from back home to also be just about the most naturally talented, forceful, brilliant person in the whole building,” he said then. “You almost never get that.” What are the chances that just about the first person he hooks up with nearly a decade ago, “his closest friend, turns out to be someone who can’t be matched by anyone, anywhere? It’s a fluke! It’s amazing.”
Now he nods ruefully. “Lot happened since last we spoke. . . .” he mutters. He holds all calls. We sit on the couch.
“How to put this . . . We have a serious problem of replacement costs. She’s irreplaceable. The cost of her absence will be huge. I don’t want to make this sound like a eulogy, but I’m deeply disappointed.
“Listen, the president’s in a state of denial about what Karen’s departure will mean, so is the First Lady, and so is Karen herself.”
I laugh. We both do—a hollow gallows laugh. Andy impatiently smacks the mustard-colored couch with his meaty hand, his cuff links with the presidential seal picking up the afternoon sun. I run through some of the “family first” narrative, and he smirks. There’s a White House to be run in a time of war.
“The whole balance of the place, the balance of what has worked up to now for George Bush, is gone, simply gone. My biggest concern? Want to know what it is? That the president will lose confidence in the White House staff. Because without her, we’ll no longer be able to provide the president what he needs, what he demands. Karen and her family will be fine,” he says. “It’s the president I’m concerned about.”
He’s a wide fire hydrant of a man with a Boston accent—more Southie than Harvard—who has watched the departure of key aides like Mike Deaver in one era and Jim Baker in another, but he senses this is different.
“My job is to make sure that the president is well served, and it is incumbent upon me to know which people who serve the president are part of that solution. Karen was a huge part of that solution.” He pauses, recognizing the past tense.
“I know this sounds like a eulogy,” he says, “but I don’t think we’ve really grasped yet what she’ll be able to actually do for the president once she leaves the staff in July.” He starts ticking off issues like conflict of interest, security clearance, how Hughes might be compensated for any work she does, considering that “she will not receive her salary” (which is now $140,000 a year). “It’s very complicated, and we’re checking with our ethics people as to what is and is not possible.” He’s right; the “post-employment restrictions” placed on former White House staff are smothering.
He gets up and starts pacing the cobalt-blue wall-to-wall, kneading his hands. “There’s a lot of jealousy, people saying, ‘Great, I want to sleep late, too,’ and there she is, going out on top.” He searches for context, casts that line up ahead. “This, you know, will be seen as one of those crossroads, a moment of causation, and everything after this will be prefaced by ‘After Karen Hughes left.’ ” Then he stops. He sees it clearly, and it’s very personal. “She’s leaving when the president has one of the highest approval ratings on record. From here, it can only go down. And when it does, you know who they’re going to blame.” He taps his chest. “They’re gonna blame Andy Card!”
His secretary noses in, an urgent call. “No . . . no . . . tell Josh [Bolten] to call them back. . . .” Then he settles back on the couch, lowering his voice, slipping into the still waters of thoughtful analysis he’s known for. “The key balance around here,” he says, “has been between Karen and Karl Rove,” the president’s right hand and his left. Rove is much more the ideologue, a darling of the Right, who often swings a sharp sword of partisanship on matters of policy and politics. Hughes, always more pragmatic, mindful of how to draw the most support across a balkanized political terrain, somehow figures how to beat that sword into a plowshare. That is at the core of what has worked so well politically for the president. Both have been with Bush for many years—Rove first met Bush twenty-nine years ago—and are ferocious personalities. As Card describes this dialectic, his thick, stevedore legs kick out, and he’s up again.
“That’s what I’ve been doing from the start of this administration. Standing on the middle of the seesaw, with Karen on one side, Karl on the other, trying to keep it in balance. One of them just jumped off.” He throws himself onto the couch to demonstrate, then he exhales again and talks about how he might restore balance, a balance that he knows will be needed if this presidency is not to suffer.
“I’ll need designees, people trusted by the president that I can elevate for various needs to balance against Karl.” And then he ticks off a few—like Tucker Eskew, Dan Bartlett, Mary Matalin, Ari Fleischer, speechwriter Michael Gerson. “They are going to have to really step up, but it won’t be easy. Karl is a formidable adversary.”
Two days before, I spoke with Rove on the phone about Hughes’s departure. “For every ten battles we’ve had, she’s won nine of them. I defer to her completely; she’s the best, best ever,” he says. I asked him about whether Hughes’s day-to-day absence will mean his more conservative agenda will now have free rein. He paused. “Well, I certainly hope not,” he said after a moment. “I certainly hope not,” and then he howled with laughter.
I tell Card a bit about this. He waves me off. He knows Rove is giddy about the real estate that’s now vacant with Hughes’s leaving. And as chief of staff, he’s clearly girding himself for battles he already sees on the horizon. “Karl will miss Karen. He may not want to admit it to the level he should, but he’ll miss Karen a lot. . . It’s like she’s a beauty to Karl’s beast.”
Meanwhile, in her office, Karen Hughes seems at ease, reviewing ideas with Tucker Eskew about how to counteract powerful anti-American imagery—in both print and electronic media—that is roiling the Arab world. There are piles of fan mail, mostly from women, both prominent and unheralded, thanking her for her stance, for “putting her family first”—as almost all the letters say.
Already her life—even here—has slipped into a quieter, more reflective rhythm. Peggy Noonan, the author who was a speechwriter for President Reagan, e-mails to ask if she has an agent. Karen’s tickled. “An agent? Can you believe that? I love Peggy,” she gushes.
She calls her sister—it’s her birthday—and then checks in with Dan again before slipping out to her car at around 7:00 p.m. “I’m in going-home mode,” she says, ducking into the Mazda. “It’s about time.”
Jerry is doing the dishes as Karen enters the kitchen and flops down at the table. He sits next to her, drying his hands with a towel. Robert is upstairs doing homework. Breeze, their golden retriever, is at her feet.
There’s more mail at home, and she picks up a handwritten note. She reads it over. It seems she likes being a symbol more than she thought, taking a “family first” stand. Strangely, it gives her an utterly separate profile from the president for the first time. On this issue, she herself seems to have taken the lead.
Jerry says they’re all looking forward to getting back to Austin, that they’re all happy with the decision. I ask him if he feels as though he has won some sort of victory in a contest of wills—and priorities—with the White House. He says no, no contest.
But sitting here, the distance traveled now is almost ready to be logged—a long journey starting in the winter of 1998, Jerry notes, when Governor Bush became a leading prospect for the Republican nomination. “Actually it was fall 1997,” Karen gently corrects, “when I had that press conference” to deal with the growing rumors that he was running and a Danish TV crew showed up. “That’s when I knew it was really starting.”
“Yes,” Jerry drawls. “You’re right, that fall.” Just about five years of holding things together as his wife strode the globe. A lot of time for a guy to be holding the bag? “Not really. You see, it’s a privilege just to be at home with my son,” Jerry Hughes says simply. Across a wobbly kitchen table, his wife, once the most powerful woman in America, just beams.
(Reprinted with permission)