Press Box

Flattery Operated

Watch as a New York Times reporter butters up Karen Hughes.

Washington journalists adore the folks who move to D.C. to work in government but then complain about the place. And they revere anybody who climaxes their complaint with an escape from Washington.

New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller is consumed with such an infatuation for Karen P. Hughes, former head of the White House Ministry of Disinformation (communications, speechwriting, and media). Hughes is not an easy woman for a journalist to like, let alone love, and she knows it. In her new memoir, Ten Minutes From Normal, the bossy Hughes acknowledges that some members of the press corps call her “Nurse Ratched” because they consider her “too serious, relentlessly on message, disciplined.” (Newsweek’s Howard Fineman confesses—more or less—in Howard Kurtz’s Washington Post column today [third item] to having nicknamed her.)

Over the years, Bumiller has sketched a very different portrait of Hughes. She’s Hippocrates on a winged horse wielding a golden sword. She’s one of President Bush’s “closest,” “most important,” “trusted,” “influential,” “powerful,” “crucial,” “top” (fill in the superlative) “advisers.” White House political fracas to untangle? Hughes has it covered. Political point to spin in a speech? Hughes brings the finesse. Administration tilting too far to the right? She’s the White House moderate who counterbalances Karl Rove, the “tough-minded woman brimming with self-confidence.”

But Bumiller never made eyes at Hughes until April 24, 2002, when Her Advisership expressed her disdain for Washington and announced an imminent departure from the city. You can almost hear the strings of admiration soar on the soundtrack as Bumiller writes of how the Hughes story illustrates the “painful truth about the difficulties women face in balancing family and work.” Bumiller writes that Hughes’ husband can’t find work here, that their 15-year-old son wants out of St. Albans—Washington’s ruling class prep school—and back to the normality of Texas public schools, and that the whole family is just “homesick” for Texas.

Bumiller’s treatment of Hughes’ Washington escape is stock stuff, but what’s unusual is how she’s continued to flatter the adviser with a series of stories. In the trade, such sweet-talking articles are known as “source greasers.”

In every rendition, Bumiller records Hughes’ devotion to home, family, and normality in praiseful tones and reiterates how wise and powerful she is. In a July 15, 2002, article that chronicles Hughes’ departure by car for Texas, Bumiller all but predicts Bush adviser fratricide without the steady guidance of “the president’s alter-ego.” (The White House somehow survived.) Wouldn’t you know it that no sooner has Hughes driven 12 hours out of D.C. than Bumiller finds her already advising the president (under a Republican National Committee contract) via cell phone. For a Washington journalist, the only thing better than a Washington hater who leaves is one who leaves but never really goes away. Writes Bumiller:

Ms. Hughes said she would be at the president’s side next month for his break at his ranch, and she was already planning his speech to mark the year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. She will have a major hand in all his big speeches, she said, and will travel regularly to Washington.

On Oct. 21, 2002, Bumiller was still applauding Hughes for the leaving but not leaving.  She documents how Hughes advises the president over the phone, edits his speeches, and visits the White House “often for three to four days at a time.” In January 2003, Bumiller again writes about Hughes, “one of Mr. Bush’s closest confidantes,” returning regularly to supervise major speeches and advise the president “at big moments.”

When Hughes decided last month to end her non-exile for a higher-profile non-exile, who got the story? Glad you asked. Bumiller and Richard W. Stevenson of the New York Times, with the March 28, 2004, encomium, “A Trusted Bush Aide to Return, but Not to Washington” (it’s a “city she never liked”). The story slathers Hughes in source grease, starting with the lede:

Karen P. Hughes was always described as one of the most powerful women ever to serve in the White House. But the most attention she ever got was when she left her West Wing office 21 months ago and went home with her family to Texas. Now she is coming back, and as far as the battered White House is concerned, it is not a moment too soon. [Emphasis added.]

To Bumiller and Stevenson, “Hughes is the smiling, media-savvy White House representative whose book now wraps her—and, by implication, the president—in the heroism of motherhood.” This isn’t source greasing, this is heavy petting! The story claims that Hughes declined to be interviewed for the article, so maybe source greasing had nothing to do with the scoop, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Bumiller returned with more Hughes worship just four days later with “Trusted Adviser’s Memoir Lifts Curtain a Bit” (April 1, 2004). Bumiller strokes Hughes in an interview and puffs the book, writing, “Ms. Hughes’s book, which hits bookstores this week in a blaze of publicity, is an antidote for a White House reeling from Mr. [Richard A.] Clarke’s accusations.” This isn’t source greasing, it’s oriental massage!

And just when you think Bumiller has deployed every superlative in service of Hughes, she mines her thesaurus for one more. In today’s Times (“The Women Behind Bush: They Promote and Defend, Nudge, Revere and Defer,” April 5), Bumiller anoints Hughes one of the president’s four “Valkyries,” the others being Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s mother, and Bush’s wife. Bumiller mistakenly defines Valkyries as “warrior women,” when the dictionary describes them the handmaids of Odin, riding on horseback, escorting slain heroes to Valhalla. Maybe not the best metaphor to uncoil during wartime—is the president playing Odin in this version, or is he a slain hero?

Having won my attention with all this hagiography, Bumiller has surely secured that of Hughes. I suppose there is no sin in writing beat sweeteners if 1) readers can be warned to ignore them; and 2) the reporter does something journalistically worthwhile with the access they’ve abased themselves to obtain. With seven months of presidential campaigning to go, I hope Bumiller will convert all that Hughesian good will into something worth reading, or I’ll see her in Valhalla.


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