Behind Bush

Presidential advisor Karen Hughes draws a crowd at Books & Books, a very, very divided crowd

Police officers call it stalking. Kulchur, however, prefers the term "field research." So let's just split the difference and say that for the second time in as many months, President George W. Bush's chief advisor, Karen Hughes, was a bit, er, concerned over Kulchur's extreme dedication to the craft of journalism. Hughes was sitting in a corner of the Coral Gables Books & Books, where a long line of autograph-seeking admirers clutched copies of her new memoir Ten Minutes from Normal, each bending in for a personalized inscription and a few one-on-one moments with the figure widely seen as the most powerful woman in the Bush White House.

Hughes put her pen down and turned to look over her shoulder where Kulchur hovered, furiously scribbling into a notepad. "Who do you write for?" she asked sharply.

Miami New Times.

When it comes to Karen Hughes, President Bush is all 
ears
When it comes to Karen Hughes, President Bush is all ears

"The Miami New Times," she repeated slowly, with a smile on her face but in an icy tone that should have this paper's editor checking under his car each morning. "I really feel this is personal," she continued. "Would you mind stepping away?" It wasn't a question.

Ever respectful of privacy -- and of women on a first-name basis with Secret Service agents -- Kulchur beat a hasty retreat. Still there had actually been little in the way of confidential revelations so far. No furtive whispering, "Psst, Karen! The eagle has landed!" And no telling asides, apart from Hughes's quip to one local GOP official that "none of the Democrats bought books. They just came to ask questions."

Indeed Kulchur was hardly the only one at Books & Books trying to get a handle on Hughes -- and by extension the man she has served as aide and confidante since he first ran for governor of Texas in 1994. It was easy to spot these skeptics in the crowd. They had sat stony-faced through Hughes's folksy and disarming portrait of her home life and the commander-in-chief ("I went to work for a guy named George"), as well as the shifting personal priorities that prompted her to leave her position as Bush's director of communications in July 2002 and return her family to Austin, Texas. "I don't like it here, Dad doesn't like it here, even the dog doesn't like it here," her son Robert gripes of Washington, D.C., in Ten Minutes from Normal. "And it's all because of you."

But as Hughes wrapped up reading from her book amid applause, her critics sprang to life with a host of bitterly tinged questions: Didn't the president realize the importance of safeguarding legalized abortion? Or the value of separating church and state? And speaking of the Lord, what in Heaven's name is going on in Iraq?

Underlying this aggrievement was the sense that Bush himself is little more than a figurehead for more sinister Oval Office forces, a notion that is spreading so rapidly it will soon rival JFK conspiracy theories. According to one such school of thought, Bush is simply a marionette jerked across the stage by his strategist Karl Rove, taking the nation to war in order to whip up homefront patriotism and cement his 2004 reelection. Others see Vice President Dick Cheney as the puppetmaster, guiding U.S. foreign policy on behalf of Halliburton and the oil industry. And then there's Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who last week echoed the views of the left-leaning journal The Nation, calling Bush merely an empty "vessel" for a neoconservative cabal of Pentagon insiders hell-bent on a new Pax Americana, even suggesting that Bush had secretly planned the September 11 World Trade Center attacks on their behalf. No doubt Lyndon LaRouche has his own spin on all this as well.

The desire to peer behind the curtain is even more pronounced in Austin, Texas, where Bush's gubernatorial tenure often drew the ire of the very conservatives -- both neo- and old-fashioned -- now supposedly calling his shots. "He was a uniter, not a divider, a centrist who fought the extremists in his own party," recalls Paul Burka in a recent Texas Monthly profile. "He made appointments based on ability, not litmus tests. He had the decency to stay above petty politics. He was motivated by the public interest, not ideology." Since Bush swore the oath of the presidency, though, Burka says he's seen only environmental rollbacks, regressive tax policies, shameless pandering to the religious right, and a war even the administration's strongest supporters often have trouble understanding. "What happened to Gov. George W. Bush?" he asks. "Where is the guy we sent to Washington?"

Plenty of folks agree with Burka -- and not just in Texas. After all, what was Ralph Nader's surprisingly strong 2000 finish if not a verdict on the part of liberals that a Bush presidency would differ little from an Al Gore presidency?

But it's in Austin that those jilted feelings take on an oddly bittersweet flavor. This past March, as Kulchur attended Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival, more than 3000 people turned out for packed showings of the crude anti-Dubya documentary Bush's Brain, joyously booing at every onscreen appearance of Karl Rove, the picture's noggin-in-question.

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