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

Behind Bush

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.

"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.

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.

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."

Mrs. Hughes, you joked that when you went to the White House in 2000, being a Texan, your foreign-policy experience began and ended with Mexico and Oklahoma. Isn't it a bit strange, then, that the president told Bob Woodward he came to you for advice on the war in Iraq, rather than his own secretary of state?

"The president and I did talk over Christmas 2002," Hughes answered coolly as the room began buzzing, "and what I had to say he agreed with.... [War] had to be the last resort."

But when it comes to foreign policy, why would the president talk to you and not the secretary of state?

Hughes appeared to recall Bush's own actions better than Bush himself. "The president and the secretary of state talked extensively," she insisted. As for the details of her own role in the process, she grinned and added coyly: "I was counsel to the president. We talked about a lot of subjects."

Afterward an impressed Bobbie Brinegar, president of the Miami-Dade League of Women Voters, was ready to anoint a new West Wing maestro. "My advice to the Democrats," Brinegar chuckled wryly to Kulchur, "would be to start a letter-writing campaign to Karen's son to convince him to make his mother stay at home this fall. "


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