POLITICS OCTOBER 18, 1993
On September 27 a Texas grand jury indicted the newest member of the Senate, Kay Bailey Hutchison, on five counts of records tampering and misuse of public office. The felony and misdemeanor charges stem from her tenure as state treasurer, when workers on the payroll of Hutchison's office made fund-raising calls for her campaign on state time and used a state computer to keep track of contributions. Well, tut, tut, to be sure. But in Texas, where standards of political ethics remain something short of those in, say, Wisconsin, this sort of incident is hardly a disfiguring blemish on one's career. And in truth, the possibility of petty election-fiddling is far less troubling than another aspect of the junior senator from Texas: the utter vacuousness of her views.
In person, Hutchison seems almost an automaton, releasing a trained, expressionless smile, but concealing any spark of human warmth. Columnist Molly Ivins calls her "The Breck Girl." Her perfect dyed-blond hair, perfect makeup, perfect suits and perfect stockings give her an anchorwoman's sheen; think of Connie Chung crossed with Georgette Mosbacher, but icier. Hutchison's utterances are equally smooth. And they have a kind of surface plausibility. But if you press a bit deeper, they dissolve into the kind of gibberish spouted by Congressman Bob Forehead, the big-haired, finger-to-the-wind Republican in Mark Alan Stamaty's "Washingtoon."
The lack of idiosyncrasy and spontaneity are echoed in Hutchison's personal history, at least as she tells it. Hutchison grew up in the Gulf Coast town of La Marque, where her father had an insurance business, headed the chamber of commerce and made small contributions to both political parties. As she recalled in an interview last week, her primary interests growing up were ballet and cheerleading, the latter remaining her abiding passion throughout college and into law school at the University of Texas in Austin. She adopted her father's bipartisan politics, voting for Goldwater but serving as a summer intern for a Democratic congressman, Clark Thompson. She took the job on "a lark," as she says, and it failed to spark an interest in politics. She remained focused on "cheerleading, football, football players." After law school, which she says made her more serious, she was unable to get a job with any firms in Texas. Instead, she found work as a television reporter in Austin.
Hutchison's big break was an assignment to interview Anne Armstrong, who had been made a co-chair of the Republican National Committee in 1971. Armstrong became Hutchison's patron, hiring her as her press secretary in Washington. Soon thereafter, Hutchison was drafted to run for the Texas legislature in Houston as a Republican, and won. In 1972, at 29, she found herself with a budding political career. "She had no politics. She invented it out of whole cloth," says Jim Hightower, the former Texas agriculture commissioner. Indeed, it's difficult to see what other than ambition motivated her. The senator doesn't offer much in the way of elaboration herself. She says she went into politics because she "enjoyed covering it." Asked about her political heroes, she names only Armstrong. Asked for more classic figures, she mentions them all: Adams, Madison, Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington. Why? "I read a lot of biographies and did certainly appreciate what the early people did," she says.
After two terms in the legislature, again with Armstrong's help, Hutchison was appointed by President Gerald Ford to a patronage seat on the National Transportation Safety Board. She had no experience in the field, and resigned the sinecure in 1978 to return to Texas to marry Ray Hutchison, a Dallas bond lawyer who had been her deskmate in the legislature and who was running for governor. He lost in the Republican primary, but helped to finance her subsequent career. In 1982 Kay Hutchison ran for Congress and lost. She then worked as a corporate lawyer with her husband, became the director of a bank that failed and invested in a series of unsuccessful businesses, including a furniture showroom and a candy factory. Having flopped in business, she tried politics once again, running for Texas state treasurer in 1990.
Her election carried a strong, if typically Texan, whiff of sleaze. A rival candidate, Tom Bowden, was backed in the Democratic primary by some business associates of Ray Hutchison. When Bowden lost the primary, he endorsed Hutchison in the general election. She won, and hired him to work for her. Texas newspapers have reported that Bowden bragged to colleagues that he and Hutchison had a deal giving him the job in exchange for his political backing.
There was also favoritism toward political supporters. Daniel Cook III, a Dallas partner of Goldman Sachs, was a key fund-raiser in her treasurer's race; he and his firm gave her $22,000. After the election, Hutchison handed Goldman Sachs a contract to underwrite a $300 million state bond issue on a no-bid basis. "I did not take money from Goldman Sachs until we had finished doing business with them," Hutchison said at the time in a less than confidence-inspiring defense. (Cook was finance chairman again for her Senate run.)
Hutchison was dubbed a national figure at the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston, where she gave the opening address. The GOP had yet to lose the White House, but Hutchison's speech laid the groundwork for the degeneracy that has come to characterize the Republican party in presidential exile. On economic issues, this means oppositionism without a better idea: a bluff against spending in general, but without specifics, and boundless demagoguery about taxes. On social issues, it means meticulous positioning in relation to poll data and the Republican party's own factions.
In her campaign for the Senate, which followed soon after, Hutchison evolved a set of positions that, while barely coherent, perfectly suited the circumstances. Democrats tried to portray her as "Phil Gramm in a skirt." But the portrait failed because Hutchison, as one Democratic consultant points out, "carefully nurtures her differences with Gramm." Most importantly, she developed a position on abortion that offered something to every side of the debate. She thinks the government should not prohibit abortions, but doesn't call herself pro-choice and opposes the Freedom of Choice Act. She is against public financing of abortion, and supports waiting periods and parental consent for minors. Her position is as nuanced as Mario Cuomo's, but without the candlepower. Asked whether her views have evolved, she says they have, as "the issue has evolved." Asked how her position used to be different, she becomes flustered. "I feel that I'm where I always was. That's how I feel."
For a Republican, such a position is hazardous mostly in the primary stages of a campaign. Pro-life absolutists are activists and are disproportionately powerful within the party. In the February Republican primary in the special election to fill Lloyd Bentsen's seat, Hutchison's strongest opponents were Jack Fields and Joe Barton, two avid right-to-lifers. With the pro-life vote divided, she conquered. David Beckwith, a college friend who went down to manage her campaign after the forced retirement of his previous boss, Dan Quayle, worked with Karl Rove, a GOP political consultant who also works for Phil Gramm, to help turn the issue to her advantage. Their strategy was to emphasize that Hutchison's view was moderate, while her opponents' views were all extremist. "When one side would attack us, we'd try to get the other side involved, too," Beckwith says. In the general election, Hutchison emphasized the pro-choice element in her views. While the pro-choice group naral supported her Democratic opponent, Bob Krueger, Hutchison got the backing of wish, a group that finances pro-choice Republican women. The National Women's Political Caucus, which sometimes endorses men and might have sided with Krueger stayed out of the race. campaign. She came out for term limits--though she never explained why she supported them. She joined Ross Perot's United We Stand and Perot himself supported her candidacy. But mainly she ran against Washington, trying to turn the election into a referendum on Bill Clinton's proposed tax increases. With the president's approval rating at 17 percent in Texas, her election was a cakewalk. The only issue that ever came close to threatening Hutchison was her temper; she was accused of pinching one employee and pummeling another with a notebook when she couldn't find a phone number fast enough. She successfully turned the issue around, saying the charges were being made only because she was a woman. The temper is real, however. (It flared during our interview, when she snapped at Beckwith, who sat in, for attempting to leave the office at 8 p.m. She ordered him to come back to deliver a "report," as if he were a naughty child who hadn't done his chores.)
Since the election, Hutchison has sought out the middle ground on other social issues as well. She supports financing for the National Endowment for the Arts, but favors restrictions on grantees. She switched her vote to support Carol Moseley-Braun's position against renewing an insignia patent for the Daughters of the Confederacy. Though she is opposed to gays serving in the military ("eruptions that happen when there is sexual attraction are not suited for military life," she says), she supported Thomas Payzant, a Clinton nominee to the Department of Education, who banned anti-gay Boy Scout troops when he was an education official in California.
Yet as deft as she is at judging prevailing currents, thinking on her feet is not a strong suit. Asked whether gays should be able to adopt children, she lapsed into a stunned silence for more than a minute. This is a long time in a half-hour interview. Outside her window, the leaves turned brown. Icicles formed, then melted. David Beckwith appeared to be in great pain, Quayle memories doubtless flashing through his mind. Finally, she ventured that heterosexual parents are preferable. But if no straight parents are available, are gay parents better than no adoption at all? "I don't want anything I say to be misconstrued. I'm just not comfortable making all of the judgments," she said testily.
On economic issues, Hutchison is every bit as political, but less coherent. The one consistent thread in her philosophy seems to be her loathing of public spending. In an August op-ed in USA Today, she wrote, "We may thus have a rare opportunity soon to address the No. 1 problem of our national government--overspending. That opportunity must be seized." Yet she has no real plan for cutting the budget. Her proposals--a 10 percent reduction in government overhead, limiting the overall growth of spending to 2 percent a year and zero-based budgeting--are a farrago of failed and insubstantial ideas. Though she says the overhead cut would save $45 billion a year, she has been unable to get the Congressional Budget Office to verify any such figure. Her idea for a 2 percent limit on the growth of spending is even less plausible. She says she doesn't mean it to be an across-the-board cut, and would exempt programs affecting seniors. She prefers to cut "obsolete" programs entirely. But what programs she won't say.
Indeed, when it comes to trimming anything in particular from the federal budget, Hutchison seems to be adamantly against it, at least if the item in question has anything to do with Texas or Texans. She is one of the chief champions of the superconducting supercollider and the space station, arguing for the latter on the creative, if far-fetched, grounds that it will advance breast cancer research. As for the supercollider, Hutchison had the audacity to write to Clinton in July, excoriating him for not working hard enough to promote it--even as she railed against the White House for failing to cut spending. She wants to protect agricultural subsidies and keep the base closing commission far away. She also supports welfare reform and national service. But instead of proposing a way to pay for them, she has a bill to repeal the retroactivity of the tax hikes in Clinton's budget.
Perhaps sensing the contradictions in her views, she recently changed her position on spending completely. When I spoke to her, she said that though it would have been desirable to cut spending and not raise taxes, now that taxes have been raised, she doesn't wish to lower spending for fear of harming the economy. She would postpone all cuts indefinitely. Like Ronald Reagan, she professes that government is too big, but never tries to make it smaller. She has other Reaganesque qualities, too. In August, Hutchison ran into Jesse Jackson. "What a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Secretary!" she exclaimed.
In other words, but for her legal troubles, Hutchison has all the makings of a successful Republican politician. Party leaders consider her a rising star, and a number of them say that if her next move isn't probation, it could be the White House. One political consultant told me that Hutchison would be the perfect Republican nominee for vice president in 1996. Not only is she a telegenic woman, but one who can appeal to both moderates and conservatives. She would be the perfect counterweight to a pro-life man at the top of the ticket.
Texas Democrats are hoping the trial, forecast for late spring, will spell the end of this sort of talk. Even if she is acquitted, they hope, the prosecution will bloody her enough so she can be beaten when she stands for re-election in 1994. But the charges against Hutchison also have the potential to work in her favor, and to some extent already have, because her offenses sound so petty and because her nemesis, a district attorney named Ronnie Earle, is an ambitious Democrat who wanted Texas Governor Ann Richards to appoint him to the seat Bob Krueger got. Earle has a reputation as a fair-minded, zealous prosecutor, and he has gone after prominent members of his own party for less. But it still looks to many Texas voters like the Democrats are up to their old tricks, trying to claim in court what they couldn't win at the ballot box.
A conviction may get Hutchison out of the way, but unless her ideas are challenged, a dozen more Forehead Republicans will rise to take her place. Many Texas Democrats, however, are too complicit in her evasions to challenge her effectively. Krueger, for example, was unwilling to defend Clinton's budget, running away from the president while Hutchison ran against him. This is a sure recipe for defeat, even for a candidate better than Krueger. Hutchison may have broken the rules. But her biggest fault isn't corruption. It's blather.
By Jacob Weisberg