In the last few days of March, America awoke to the news that Karen Parfitt Hughes had come back to the White House. Elizabeth Bumiller announced the return of the “president’s counselor” with near-mythic fanfare in The New York Times; Juan Williams of National Public Radio lobbed her elegant, arcing softballs in an early-morning interview, each of which she hit neatly out of the public-relations park. (When asked why Condoleezza Rice had suddenly agreed to testify before the 9/11 Commission, Hughes barked decisively, “She wants to get the facts out!”) The effect was something like a fairy godmother alighting once more on Earth to defend her embattled children, gathering them under her billowing skirts and fending off the scurrilous bullies. To those of us who fear Bush’s re-election to the White House in November, it was a terrifying moment.
Who is this Karen Hughes, come back from a self-imposed and not-quite-yearlong retirement in which she meant to spend more time with her family but ended up writing a new book? “A career woman, a GOP leader and stay-out-of-the-home mom,” says Laura Flanders in her own new book, Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, a woman who “spent years massaging a message that came from a man who believes in his heart that success like hers shames society.” Hughes exemplifies, according to Flanders, a strange new breed of anti-feminist politica who benefited significantly from the gains of the women’s movement, and yet she turned abruptly rightward as her star rose. And her strategy succeeds, Flanders argues, only because so few voters are willing to take these women, “or the rights of all women, seriously enough to give the whole 21st-century Republican Party makeover plan too much scrutiny.” Indeed, Flanders notes: The most scathing remarks in the media about Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris were not reserved for her conflict-of-interest issues, but for her overdone makeup.
With frequent detours into political and economic history, Bushwomen builds a case against the Bush White House as a paragon of diversity; instead, she says, the administration brought on women the way a CEO hires executive secretaries: They “became to the president as a reflective surface is to a fashion model — excellent for casting him in a flattering light.” No one was particularly impressed when Bill Clinton appointed exactly as many women to his cabinet as Bush did later, because the expectations attending Bush’s presidency were so dismally low. “George W. scored points simply for not naming a team of Neanderthal men in white sheets,” Flanders writes.
Flanders does a fine job, in prose as plucky as some of her subjects’ speeches, of making clear what the Republican Party, down on its PR luck with America’s women after Reagan’s first run, had to gain by welcoming women into its upper echelons and executive ranks. What’s less clear is what’s in it for the women themselves. Why would a woman like Hughes, towering in stature and ambitions, choose to affiliate herself with a party whose stated core values are about keeping women down?
Hughes, like Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Secretary of the Interior Gale Ann Norton, was born in the ’50s, raised in the time of Vietnam and civil rights and granted prominence by a Republican Party that desperately needed feminine endorsement. An Army brat who grew up near the Panama Canal before it was returned to the Panamanians, Hughes briefly pursued a career as a Texas television news reporter before landing a job as the statewide press coordinator for Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign. “Karen Hughes bailed out of TV journalism just as that ship was going down,” Flanders writes. “The PR industry, on the other hand, was at the birth of a boom.”
As was the GOP’s effort to recruit women: In that same year, Chao was in Reagan’s White House as a special assistant in the Office of Policy Development, and Norton had discovered the benefits of shilling for corporate clients under the ruse of environmentalism (the year before, she was enjoying a stint at Stanford University under a fellowship from the reactionary Hoover Institution).
Flanders enthusiastically skewers these women for their traitorousness; what she forgets is that it’s not just adherents to the Republican platform who disdain ambitious women — it’s the whole country. Conservatives in their rhetoric may not reflect the real lives of women like Harris, Hughes and Chao; but at least they offer, however artificially and self-consciously, a realm in which women can distinguish themselves simply by working hard for the big-business cause, a culture that has been delighted for the last 20 years to count the unusual presence of women among its gray-suited ranks if only for the public relations boost. The Bush White House may not have any more of a heart for the working mother or homemaker than it does for clean air and redwood trees. It has, however, created that rare place in the U.S. where women can float above corporate glass ceilings. Ironic and hypocritical, yes, but it’s a fact that should give any self-described feminist liberal pause.
BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species | By LAURA FLANDERS Verso | 342 pages | $22 hardcover