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Bill Berkowitz: Tapping Karen Hughes

Tapping Karen Hughes

Bush's highly regarded spinmeister chosen to sell America's mission to the Middle East and the world
By Bill Berkowitz

She's smart, savvy and she can spin with the best of them. When revelations about George W. Bush's DUI surfaced in the final days of the 2000 presidential campaign, she ran interference for the startled candidate as well as any blocking back in professional football. And when Richard Clarke left the reservation and made waves about the president's less-than-sterling performance combating al Qaeda in front of the 9/11 committee, she headed up the efforts to sully his reputation. Now, she's returned from Texas to take on another tough challenge -- selling Team Bush's policies to the people of the Middle East and the rest of the world.

On March 14, at a State Department ceremony in front of an audience packed with agency employees, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the appointment of Karen Hughes to the position of under secretary of state for public diplomacy.

"Hughes is a highly regard spin doctor," Laura Miller, the editor of the Center for Media and Democracy's PR Watch recently told WorkingForChange. "She played a crucial role in both getting Bush elected to office and shaping the administration's vast communications strategy. She was instrumental in creating the sales blitz for the Iraq invasion, not just by helping craft the administration's message, but by creating an internal infrastructure to ensure that White House spin dominated the 24-hour news cycle."

Hughes and Public Diplomacy

Secretary Rice told those gathered at the State Department that the US must do more to counter the "hateful propaganda" all too prevalent in the Middle East. "When it comes to our public diplomacy, we simply must do better," Rice said. Hughes "knows the importance of education, and she understands the power of ideas. And she believes strongly that we must mobilize young people around the globe to shatter the mistrust of past grievances and to foster a new spirit of tolerance and mutual respect," the Secretary added.

Hughes's ability as a spinmeister should mesh nicely with an administration that has a penchant for manufacturing and orchestrating news. In the past few months alone, there have been revelations that the Team Bush had: saturated news outlets around the country with phony video news releases in support of a number of its policies; developed a strategy of purposefully sidestepping the mainstream media while concentrating on local news affiliates to get out its message; credentialed a phony reporter from a conservative "news" service who managed to ask the president and White House press secretary Scott McClellan questions at White House press briefings; and slipped several conservative columnists onto the payroll to have them push administration policy in their columns.

Hughes herself is a Dr. Jeckl and Ms. Hyde-type figure. As The Nation's David Corn recently wrote, Hughes, who was "once a local television reporter... turned to the dark side. During the 2000 campaign, she actively misled the press about key aspects of Bush's past -- most notably, his military service and his drunk-driving conviction. As a White House aide, she used PR tactics, not the truth, to push Bush's reckless policies. Now she'll do the same concerning the United States' image abroad."

And Business Week's David Kiley characterized her as "a Bush cheerleader, not a strategist with an independent mind or opinion about how we might seriously affect the silent majority of Muslims who probably want to live with more freedom than a theocracy would allow."

From Paris, through Panama, to Texas

Born in Paris in 1956, Karen Hughes, then Karen Parfitt, spent fourth and fifth grade in the Panama Canal Zone, where her father, Major-General Harold R. Parfitt, was serving as Lieutenant Governor of the Zone and Vice-President of the Canal Company. According to Laura Flanders' book, "Bushwomen" (Verso, 2004), "the 'Company' was actually a US government agency that administered the ten-mile-wide stretch that housed those who worked on, and protected, the waterway." As Major-General Parfitt, Hughes' father was to become the last military Governor of the Panama Canal before it to Panama after a bitter political struggle in the US.

Hughes left her local television gig in 1984 to begin a new career as the press coordinator for the Texas Reagan-Bush re-election campaign; at the time the state's political landscape was dominated by Democrats. After the Reagan-Bush landslide victory, Hughes "rose in the ranks of Texas political consultants." She soon hooked up with Karl Rove, "an independent political consultant." Flanders writes that at the time Rove "was practicing in Texas what direct-mail-meister Richard Viguerie had been teaching the GOP since the 1964 Goldwater campaign: build up mailing lists, prospect for donors, fund-raise, fund-raise, fund-raise."

"For the next seven years," Flanders writes, "Hughes was never short of work, and she was in the thick of a plan for more winning. Her expertise was message-sending. For mayoral races, judges' elections and bond campaign, she wrote press releases, ran press conferences, and built up her own lists, not unlike... Rove."

As Republicans gained ascendancy in Texas, Hughes signed on to Bush's fledgling gubernatorial campaign in 1993. While "Rove raked in opposition research... Hughes spread it to the media," as Bush's communications director.

Spinning Bush in Washington...

During the 2000 presidential campaign "questions of 'character' figured prominently," Flanders writes in "Bushwomen." "Hughes [as director of communications] not only projected Bush's public character... but she, with W., created it," through their jointly-written book, "A Charge to Keep." Flanders describes the book as "essentially a campaign tool... [that] papers over Bush's frat-boy drinking and who-knows-what-else period, his arrests and his mysterious missing year-and-a-half in the early 1970s (when he should have been serving in the National Guard, but wasn't)."

With Bush's take over of the White House, Hughes "rose to become the most powerful woman in the land. ... As 'counselor to the President' -- Bush created the position uniquely for her -- she sat in on every meeting, oversaw the offices of press secretary, communications and speechwriting, and had communications directors of every department reporting directly to her."

In October 2001, Hughes worked with PR specialist John Rendon to create the Coalition Information Center (CIC), which Laura Flanders describes as a "fast-response network [with offices in Washington, London, and Islamabad] set up to respond to anti-US news that appears anywhere in the world."

"It will take probably 10 or 15 or even 20 years for the kind of campaign we are talking about to have an effect," Hughes said at the time. "We have not done a very good job in America over the past 20 or 30 years of explaining our values to the rest of the world and talking about the values we have in common. And we're obviously behind. "

Flanders pointed out that the CIC was "Hughes' Austin [Texas] fast-fax system gone global. It was her parting accomplishment."

But parting and being apart are two distinct things: Last year, according to a Houston Chronicle report, Hughes was the "point-woman for the White House response to criticism from former anti-terrorism adviser Richard Clarke," a campaign that wound up viciously tarring the former administration official. The newspaper also reported that Hughes "took the lead in defending Bush's use of 9/11 video in his campaign commercials."

Hughes was also criticized last year when she made a comment to CNN that seemed to compare abortion-rights activists to terrorists. Hughes later said that her remarks were distorted and that she intended no connection.

... And the World

Hughes now takes on the task of setting the record straight with the rest of the world. According to a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press report, Hughes faces a formidable task: "Anti-Americanism is deeper and broader now than at any time in modern history. It is most acute in the Muslim world, but it spans the globe from Europe to Asia, from South America to Africa.

"And while much of the animus is aimed directly at President Bush and his policies, especially the war in Iraq, this new global hardening of attitudes amounts to something larger than a thumbs down on the current occupant of the White House," the report said.

Others have tried and failed at advancing the US's image in the Middle East. Charlotte Beers, who came to the post with a strong Madison Avenue background, started up in 2001 and approached the complicated issues involved as a marketing problem. Beers launched an aggressive campaign "Shared Values" -- television ads portraying American Muslims in their daily life. The ads were eventually suspended when several Arab countries refused to broadcast them. Beers conceded failure and quit in March 2003 "for health reasons," according to a statement by then Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Her replacement, Margaret Tutwiler, who served as spokeswoman for Secretary of State James A. Baker III and later went on to become President Bush's ambassador to Morocco, lasted less than a year on the job.

"What Hughes brings to the position is her close connection to the White House and her experience setting up an effective communications routine," PR Watch's Laura Miller told me. "At minimum, there will be daily talking points that will be sent out to all diplomatic offices -- and probably to the military as well -- highlighting some kind of foreign policy success or other international feel-good initiative." In addition, says Miller, "I would expect to have high-up US officials making more appearances in cooperative foreign media venues. Whatever programs that are developed for the public diplomacy operation will be tightly scripted and fairly routinized as consistency of message and frequent repetition is two PR fundamentals."

Considering some of the tasks Hughes has previously taken on for the president, she appears to be up to the challenge.

If confirmed by the Senate as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, Hughes will hold the rank of ambassador.


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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