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Closest aide leaves Bush's side

Karen Hughes, who shaped the image of the president, will still offer advice from Texas.

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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By SARA FRITZ, Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 24, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Karen Hughes, who announced Tuesday she is leaving the Bush White House later this year, has been more than a political adviser to George W. Bush. As the president's alter ego, she is perhaps the most powerful woman in America.

Hughes, 45, a public relations specialist who has worked for Bush since he ran for governor in 1994, said she will be moving back to Texas this summer with her husband, Jerry, and teenage son, Robert, but will continue to advise the president from a distance.

"I've always prided myself that this is a family-friendly White House, and I think this is a family-friendly decision," Hughes told reporters. "My commute is going to be a little longer, but you'll still be seeing me around frequently."

Likewise, the president said he would continue to rely on Hughes for advice. "I care for her deeply, but I'm going to have plenty of exposure to her," he said. "She may be changing addresses but she's not leaving my inner circle."

Hughes is the first of Bush's top advisers to depart the White House, although others are expected to follow suit over the next year.

Her announcement came as a big surprise to everyone in Washington and left them asking: Can Bush succeed without her at his side? Even though she will maintain her ties, the move will make it impossible for her to exert control over the president's affairs as she has since he took the oath of office in January 2001.

As counselor to the president, Hughes is credited with engineering much of Bush's early success as president. Bush gave her broad power to control almost everything that happens at the White House and she has used it artfully to define Bush's public persona more clearly than that of any president since Ronald Reagan.

Thanks largely to Hughes, Americans know Bush as kind, thoughtful and decisive. Thanks to her, Americans see him as fully engaged in all aspects of his administration -- from elementary education to the war on terrorism.

"Karen Hughes has done very well; she is an important part of Bush's team," notes presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution. "This is the first White House in American history to have a powerful woman on staff that was not married to the president. She is a woman who is powerful enough to be called the president's closest adviser."

According to Frank Sesno, former Washington bureau chief for CNN, Hughes exerts so much control that none of the television networks can get interviews with senior White House officials without her approval. Sesno notes that Hughes also has been praised for her "rapid response" to developments that could hurt Bush.

"Karen is George Bush's alter ego," says Sesno. "That chemistry is what the president is going to miss."

Unfortunately for Bush, Hughes is leaving at a time when her services may be especially necessary. Republicans as well as Democrats are questioning the wisdom of the president's fiscal leadership at home and his diplomatic skills abroad. Without her, he may have a harder time answering his critics.

Jennifer Palmieri, press secretary for the Democratic Party, said Bush's message is likely to be less focused without Hughes.

"From where we sit," said Palmieri, "Karen Hughes seemed to be particularly good at keeping a close rein on the White House staff and making sure there are no leaks. I wonder if her departure may cause a little upheaval, creating a less disciplined staff."

But Lance Morgan, an experienced political public relations man and president of the Washington office of Weber Shanwick, said he thinks Hughes' control over the message was slipping.

"I think the Bush administration has had extremely good message discipline," Morgan said. "But their message is less clear now. . . . It's easy to say Osama bin Laden is a terrorist. It's harder to convince people that Yasser Arafat is a terrorist."

At the same time, Morgan said Bush may no longer need as much handling. "People around George Bush love the guy because of his humanity," Morgan said. "It was his humanity, not his handlers, who caused him to grab the bullhorn when he visited ground zero right after Sept. 11."

Although her allies as well as her critics have admired Hughes' ability to control Bush's public persona, some have accused her of going overboard at times. Sesno said Hughes has alienated many journalists who cover the White House by keeping press secretary Ari Fleischer uninformed about many important matters.

When the president's plane made several stops on Sept. 11 before returning to Washington, his critics tried to portray him as being afraid to go into the White House. Then when Hughes tried to rebut those critics, she was accused of overreacting.

It has become common for government officials to cite "personal reasons" for leaving their posts, even when they are getting the boot. But Hughes' explanation for her departure seemed to be genuine. Her son is known to be unhappy attending St. Albans, Washington's trendiest prep school and alma mater of former Vice President Al Gore.

Hughes said she recently attended a soccer game in Texas with the mother of one of Robert's friends. "I realized I was missing seeing my friend's children grow up; and that my son . . . was missing the opportunity to go to his friends' homes," she said.

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