Louis Dubose on Karen Hughes and George W. Bush

To Keep a Charge reviewed


If you haven’t noticed, this is the first presidential campaign cycle in which every candidate has the imprimatur of a New York publishing house. Bill Bradley wrote Time Present, Time Past. Steve Forbes’ quirky The New Birth of Freedom has not yet been remaindered. Random House rejected him before Republican funders did, but Dan Quayle did manage to prevail upon Word Books to publish Worth Fighting For — shortly before he stopped fighting and became the second campaign casualty of 1999.

While every candidate has a book out, none has been the focus of as much attention as George W. Bush, who made publishing history as the subject of three biographies released in three consecutive months: Bill Minutaglio’s First Son; J.H. Hatfield’s Fortunate Son, and finally George W. Bush’s A Charge to Keep, an autobiography ghostwritten by Bush press secretary Karen Hughes.

With the December release of the Karen Hughes autobiography To Keep a Charge, Bush again makes history — as a ghostwriter of the autobiography of his own press secretary. The Bush bio (A Charge to Keep, the two titles can get confusing) was to be written by Mickey Herskowitz — a veteran Houston sportswriter who has pinch-hit as a ghostwriter on several celebrity bios. Herskowitz signed a $150,000 contract to write the Bush autobiography — along with a second ghosted autobiography of Bush’s press secretary Karen Parfitt Hughes. When Herskowitz missed his deadline, Hughes began writing the Bush book and Bush began writing the Hughes book. (Hughes used her $100,000 advance to buy a new house in the upscale Austin suburb of Westlake; Bush donated his $50,000 to the Texas Library Fund, established by First Lady Laura Bush.)

The Hughes bio is slow, but it would not be accurate to call To Keep a Charge “plodding,” as have some critics. In fact, the book races along without reflection, through what, in the hands of a better writer, might have been an interesting tale. Hughes’ birth in Paris, France, as the first child of Major General H.R. Parfitt; her world travels with her parents and younger sister, Beverly; her years studying English and journalism at S.M.U., where she graduated summa cum laude; her employment at a Dallas TV station, where she got turned on to politics; read like an embellished résumé.

Hughes (and her co-author) focus on the ceremonial moments of their years together, the Bush inaugurations, the swearing-in of beaming appointees, even the televised dove hunt at which Bush shot a kildee instead of a dove, all are described in detail sufficient to bore the reader.

Yet the book is devoid of insight. The writers don’t even pause to discuss the one watershed event in Texas politics both witnessed: the 1994 state party convention, when Hughes’ boss and Bush’s close friend, Republican Party Chair Fred Meyer, was unceremoniously ousted by Tom Pauken, the conservative Christian activist who presided over the party through Bush’s first two legislative sessions. Hughes, who had served as Meyer’s executive director, quickly found her way to the Bush campaign. And Bush was left to straddle the gap dividing the religious conservatives and social conservatives. Yet the ’94 convention is ignored.

Where the book is expansive and needed an editor are in its pages of universal platitudes:We must not allow race to divide us, I warned. “There’s a trend in this country to put people into boxes. Texans don’t belong in little ethnic and racial boxes…. As we head into the twenty-first century, we should have one big box: American.”

My faith gives me focus and perspective. It teaches me humility. But I also recognize that faith can be misinterpreted in the political process. Faith is an important part of my life.

America is a great country because of our religious freedoms. It is important for any leader to respect the faith of others.

I like people, and I am interested in learning more about them, plus I believe people’s values and priorities are rooted in their upbringing.

The gap of hope threatens the very fabric of America…. We must close the gap of hope.

Apathy comes with a risk, because when the American dream is diminished for any one of us, it is diminished for all of us. We are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I reject the thinking of those who would lump Americans into different groups based on characteristics such as skin color or ethnic heritage or economic circumstances. Group thought pits people against one another.

(Note: In a remarkable coincidence, the above passages coincide literally with passages in Bush’s own book. See A Charge to Keep, William Morrow, 1999, pages 12, 13, 138, 28, 228.)

All of this could have been written by Dan Schnur, who serves as John McCain’s communications director. Or by Dan Quayle.

Beyond being poorly written (an attentive editor would have mended the “gap of hope in the fabric” metaphor), To Keep a Charge will remind readers that press flacks — even the “flack of the century,” as Texas Monthly described Hughes — are not the stuff of good, or even mediocre autobiography. Even those who witnessed great historical moments, as did Lyndon Johnson’s press flack, George Christian, seem rather pathetic in the end, proffering quotes and insight to reporters looking for sources on the regional political scene while waiting for another fifteen minutes of fame in the next documentary about Lyndon’s Great Society or his Great War.

To Keep a Charge also suggests that Hughes lacks the intellectual heft to serve as a presidential press secretary. That “gap” won’t be closed by more experience, but it is exacerbated by lack of experience; it could be that six years as the governor’s press secretary in a “weak governor state” is not adequate preparation for the office once occupied by Bill Moyers.

“In a minute’s time, it’s hard for me to give a full book review,” Bush told The New York Times’ Frank Bruni after a stumbling attempt to discuss a Dean Acheson biography during the December 6 candidates’ debate. A minute’s time will suffice for To Keep a Charge. The publisher should have been more patient with Mickey Herskowitz.

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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Published at 12:00 am CST