Named by The Associated Press as “perhaps the most influential woman ever to serve an American president,” Hughes earned bachelor’s degrees in English and journalism from SMU. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was a member of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority.
Hughes’ ability to manage public policy, communications and politics helped brand George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” image, lending to the success of his gubernatorial campaigns beginning in 1994 and his subsequent campaigns for president.
From 2001-2002 Hughes served as strategic adviser to President Bush on policy and communications, managing all communications, speech writing and media affairs for the White House. She served as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs from 2005-2007.
In accepting the award from Dedman College, Hughes called a liberal arts education “foundational” and credited SMU with preparing her for “working at the White House and in the State Department, representing our country around the world.
“What I learned here was the best possible preparation for those roles,” she said.
Two SMU professors, in particular, made a lasting impression. She spoke about the influences of the late Laurence Perrine and his English poetry class, where she “learned much more than word usage and rhyme,” and Joseph Tyson and his philosophy of religion course, where she “learned what motivates people to think and act as they do, invaluable training for the State Department.
“I don’t believe one specific thing that we talked about in those classes ever came up in a White House meeting, yet everything I learned in those classes prepared me for every White House meeting,” she said. “I learned how to think, evaluate arguments, test logic, analyze complex situations and use words in new and different ways to convey my thoughts and ideas effectively.”
Tyson, now SMU professor emeritus of religious studies, was among the guests at the awards luncheon.
Hughes said she was encouraged to “think, explore and discover” at SMU. “I am so grateful because that has made my entire life so much richer.”
Now based in Austin, Hughes is worldwide vice chair of the public relations and communications firm Burson-Marsteller, advising global business leaders on communications and branding strategies. She also serves on the board of SMU’s John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies in Dedman College.
Hughes is the author of Ten Minutes From Normal (Viking, 2004), which highlights her time in the inner circle of President George W. Bush, with whom she co-wrote A Charge to Keep (William Morrow, 1999).
In her personal life, Hughes is an elder in the Presbyterian church and has been a longtime Sunday school teacher. She is married to attorney Jerry Hughes and they have two children, Leigh and Robert.