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Ten Minutes From Normal
The train felt odd, slow and lethargic, a marked contrast to the hyperactivity of the just-finished Republican National Convention. A convention is a riot of balloons, speeches, people and parties, but suddenly, the noise had stopped; someone had slammed on the brakes and we were on a slow roll across the Midwest, seeing the occasional cow. The convention had been a great success, the moment we had all been working toward, the moment we nominated my boss as the Republican candidate for President of the United States of America: a coronation, a culmination, yet like so many big events in a presidential campaign, oddly unsatisfying.
by Karen Hughes
The planning and organizing that had led to that moment had been years in the making. The past several months had been devoted almost entirely to building toward the convention, writing the speech, organizing the themes, planning every scripted moment of national television coverage. But then, before we were able to truly celebrate or absorb it all, it was over, and we were back on the trail, or in this case, the train track, always on to the next thing. A presidential campaign is relentless. You win a straw poll, or a primary, or a debate, or the daily news headline, and wake up to people already talking and asking about the next one. You win in Iowa, lose in New Hampshire, get back on track in South Carolina, only to lose in Michigan three days later, and wonder yet again, “are we missing something?” But you’re on a plane to California where there’s a debate coming up, then flying cross country for next week’s critical primary in Virginia. Once you start, the only way to stop is to lose, and that, of course, is not the way you want to get off of this train.
The reporters on board were all restless. Through long stretches of rural Pennsylvania and across Ohio, their cell phones didn’t work much of the time. “Al Gore could have dropped out of the race and we wouldn’t even know it,” one complained to me. “We should be so lucky,” I replied. The biggest excitement came when a woman mooned the train, causing a great stir among all on board and endless speculation about what, exactly, she was trying to say with her show.
By the second day, the sleepy routine had begun to feel a little more natural: long hours of rocking along the track, punctuated by brief rallies in small towns and waves off the back to small groups of people who gathered at crossings, bringing their children to witness a little piece of American political history. We were approaching a town in Illinois, when the conductor came over the loudspeaker and proudly announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are ten minutes from normal; ten minutes from normal.”
“If I ever write a book, that’s going to be the title,” I told my colleagues in the staff car. “10 minutes from normal is exactly how I feel about this whole bizarre experience.” I’ve always considered myself a very normal person who had, at least until recently, a very normal life, with a normal family and normal friends, except, of course, I have a boss and friend who became the President. And while that is often thrilling and even sometimes still surprising, it is most definitely not normal.
At times, it still strikes me, when I’m standing backstage and the band plays Hail to the Chief (which doesn’t happen that often because the President is quite humble, and tries to balance the grandeur and stature of the office with his desire not to inflate his own sense of self-importance), and he walks on stage and I am amazed: that is the President of the United States, and I know him, and he knows me.
He knows my husband and son. We have had dinners together; I’ve even cooked some of them, and so has he. I know how he takes his coffee. He knows that I am tall, not big, because we have had that conversation. Women who are 5 feet ten and a half and wear size 12 shoes do not like to be called big. We prefer the more stately, tall. My friend Condi Rice says it’s like sweating. Southern women do not sweat, especially if you grew up, as she did, in Birmingham, Alabama. Southern women only perspire. “Tall people in back,” the President says to me during the group photograph at last year’s senior staff Christmas dinner, winking to show he got it, he remembers.
I have a very normal family: a teenage son who thinks that I am totally annoying, especially when I ask intrusive questions like “how was your day?” or even try to talk to him when he gets in the car after school because he’s tired (tired of talking, I wonder? How is that possible since he doesn’t?) and a husband who puts up with us all and only occasionally gets irritated when I ask him for the third time today whether he loves me and then refuse to be satisfied when he tells me yes, but it’s hard. “It’s not that hard,” I protest. “Not TOO hard,” he replies, agreeably, which of course is not the answer I want to hear. I have a grown daughter (for sake of complete accuracy, I should say a stepdaughter, but my husband had custody of her and we married when she was nine. She lived with us and I nursed her through chicken pox, and creating categories of children in a family always struck me as wrong, so I always call her my daughter) and a granddaughter, who has inherited a strong will and streak of independence from all sides of our family. We have a cat, Griffey, the only cat our family has ever had who actually comes when he is called and would be an almost perfect pet, which my husband defines as not requiring much in the way of service, except for a terrible habit of choosing to throw up on the carpet instead of the tile floor, even if the tile floor is closer and he has to go to another room in mid-cough to find some soft, lovely, hard-to-clean carpet on which to deposit his most recent hairball. I also live with an exuberant golden retriever, a rambunctious and bouncy and eager dog who never has learned to keep all four feet on the ground or her tongue in and nose out of unwelcome places. She’s quite loveable, if a bit enthusiastic. That’s what I think, at least.
My husband and the dog have a strained relationship. I would like to think it dates to the time I let the dog spend the night in the house because it was cold outside in Washington and the first night she was perfect, but the second night she chewed up a blue ballpoint ink pen on the light white-beige carpet, but it’s actually much deeper than that. Jerry ended up taking care of the last dog, a ditzy cocker spaniel named Fritzi, who was sweet but kind of stupid and while I was fond of her, I never really bonded in the way that you bond with a real dog, a large and intelligent one. (Your dog gets in the cat litter, how intelligent is that? Jerry asks. Notice the pronoun. Not “our” dog, as in the family pet, but “your” dog, as in all mine.) Jerry used to laugh when the media described me as a control freak or the person who “controlled” the White House message. Anyone who thinks she’s in control ought to come and meet our animals, he would say.
Writing about the pets is oddly personal, and I realize this story will involve the people close to me more than perhaps I realized, or wanted. “I’m going to have to write about you in my book,” I inform my husband, in between commercials for ER, one of the few shows we watch on television. “I didn’t agree to that,” he protests, ever the lawyer. “You agreed I should write this book,” I answer. “I can’t write a book about my life without writing about our family, it wouldn’t be true, it wouldn’t be honest,” I protest. He looks unconvinced. ‘This is supposed to be a book about your political life, your life at the White House,” he says. “No, remember, it’s a book about a lot of things, how a normal person like me ended up working at the White House, what it was like. It’s not a typical political gossip book,” I sputter. “This book is about life and family and faith and important things, and I can’t write about what is important without writing about you and Robert.” “You can mention us, but keep it brief,” he replies.
Excerpted from Ten Minutes From Normal by Karen Hughes.
Copyright © 2004 by Karen Hughes. All rights reserved.
Posted with permission of the publisher.
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