Behind Bush

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

Yet when it came to Bush himself, that vituperation took some strange twists. At downtown Austin's Tesoros Trading Company, a store filled with charmingly quirky handcrafts from around the Third World, First Lady Laura Bush had dropped by to browse the Peruvian Frida Kahlo candles and Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons. Strolling the aisles, she also took in the store's exhibit of vintage posters from China's bloody Cultural Revolution, quietly gazing at the late-Sixties images of armed cadres proclaiming slogans ranging from the curt ("Socialism is fine") to the downright creepy ("The reddest, reddest, red sun in our heart, Chairman Mao and us together").

In most bohemian emporiums, this visit from the First Lady would be received as nothing less than an enemy incursion. At the very least it would've earned a snarky gossip-column mention. But Tesoros owner Jonathan Williams told Kulchur that none of his staff even thought of harassing Mrs. Bush, no matter how much they opposed her husband's policies. In fact, though they considered harmless the shop's kitschy "Bush Family Paper Doll Book," the decks of "Bush Cards" -- poker cards depicting Bush administration officials in a takeoff on the U.S. Army's own Most Wanted deck of Iraqi Baathists -- were discreetly tucked under the counter.

Yes, these "Bush Cards" were some of Tesoros's best-selling items. But, Williams explained, there was also the matter of rudeness. The Laura Bush he recalled from her tenure at the governor's mansion was a long-time booster of the arts and co-founder of the Texas Book Fair. As for the former governor himself, Williams shrugged uneasily. The George W. Bush who presided over the Texas legislature was a far cry from the one now in Washington, D.C.

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

Next door at the Las Manitas breakfast café there was much the same conflicted attitude. The proprietor's political sentiments were hardly veiled: Large antiwar posters filled the windows, and Kulchur was warned by several locals not to challenge such a viewpoint within earshot of the restaurant's owner, lest she pull up a chair and personally correct him on his "support for imperialism." Yet Laura Bush was a regular at Las Manitas, allowed to dig into her huevos rancheros in peace, unmolested by any of her fellow diners.

Kulchur got a firsthand glimpse of this disconnect while eating at Vespaio, an Italian bistro in Austin's South Congress neighborhood, an area that prides itself on its funkiness, replete with outdoor punk-rock shows, "Keep Austin Weird" signs, and not least, the launching point for several traffic-blocking anti-Bush marches.

Yet at a table smack in the middle of Vespaio sat Karen Hughes and her husband, quietly enjoying their dinner. No outraged protesters sidled up to her, no furrowed brows or stage whispers filled the room. Surely if so many Austinites were distraught over the war in Iraq, wouldn't at least one seize the opportunity to grab the ear of Bush's most trusted advisor? Perhaps this was just a Hughes look-alike.

Kulchur set off on his own reconnaissance mission, until on his third oh-so-nonchalant pass by Hughes's table, she finally raised a Can-I-Help-You? eyebrow. Kulchur's dining companion quickly swooped in and, in true Austin fashion, dragged him back to his plate of pasta: "Yes, that's Karen Hughes -- now sit down and leave the poor woman alone!"

Back at Books & Books, Hughes was busy surfing atop the dueling waves of applause that now marked the Red vs. Blue divide before her. And it was beginning to get ugly. One woman stood and sourly remarked upon Hughes's enthusiasm for the New Testament as a policy guidepost, noting that "religion has gotten us into a lot of wars," only to wheel to her literal right and snap, "I hear a lot of hissing coming from over here -- just hear me out!" A middle-age man decried the lack of United Nations support for the Iraqi reconstruction, only to be met by an elderly lady who loudly snorted, "What has the U.N. ever done for anybody?"

Through it all, though, Hughes never lost her cool, even downplaying her own importance. Yes, she was going back to work full-time at Bush's side beginning in August. But she was just one of many such staffers toiling away on the campaign trail.

Kulchur jumped into the fray, citing a passage from Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack, wherein Bush explains in an interview that just after New Year's Day 2003, there were only two people from whom he sought a recommendation regarding whether to go to war in Iraq. One was Condoleezza Rice, a logical choice given her position as his national security advisor. But his second sounding board wasn't Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "I could tell what they thought," Bush told Woodward. "I didn't need to ask them their opinion about Saddam Hussein. If you were sitting where I sit, you could be pretty clear. I think we've got an environment where people feel free to express themselves."

Instead Bush picked up the phone and called Karen Hughes in Austin: "I asked Karen. She said if you go to war, exhaust all possibilities to achieve [regime change] peacefully. And she was right. She actually captured my own sentiments."

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