What Will Bush Do Without Karen Hughes?

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When Karen Hughes announced that she was leaving the White House and going back to Texas, some might have expected dancing in the pressroom. No one has been more responsible than Hughes for keeping the flow of information from this Administration sanitized and restricted. But her send-off from Washington was glowing. Gone were the nasty nicknames — "Nurse Ratched" and "the Enforcer" — replaced by supportive e-mails from people she had so often vexed. A few with whom she has clashed even stopped by her office to give her a hug. "From some of the stories," said Hughes, "I feel like I've died."

Hughes' surprise departure sparked a Washington rarity: no one questioned the reason she gave for leaving. When a person says she wants to give up a powerful job to spend more time with her family, it is usually a laugh line. Few do so voluntarily, but Hughes' explanation rang true for reporters who had watched her try to tutor her son Robert, now 15, in algebra on the campaign plane or had tracked her down by cell phone in the bleachers at one of his baseball games. It was clear that the former Army brat was never comfortable with having hauled her family to Washington. When Condoleezza Rice woke her at 5:15 one morning a year ago to tell her the spy-plane crisis with the Chinese had been resolved, Robert yelled from his bedroom in the rented Washington house, "I hate working for the Federal Government!"

Bush and Hughes insist that nothing will change. She will continue her role, just from a different area code. But the White House won't be the same without her. Hughes is a security blanket for a man who is addicted to his comfortable patterns. Bush is simply more relaxed when Hughes is within earshot. When she's not there, he wants to know what she thinks. Dick Cheney is a more seasoned Washington hand and Karl Rove knows the raw politics of the country, but no one knows Bush's body language better than Hughes, who has been clipped like mittens to his coat sleeves since his first run for Governor, in 1994. Fiercely loyal, she is among the very few who can put the arm on Bush, getting him to insert into a speech a policy point he wants to leave out or appear on television from his ranch when he doesn't want to. "She is the only one who can get him to do something when he starts whining," says someone who has spent time with both.

The 45-year-old mother and grandmother likes to describe herself as Bush's conduit to the woman in the kitchen, who gets her news through the whir of the blender and the toddler scratching for a juice box. References in Bush's speeches to waitresses, Afghan women and Palestinian and Israeli mothers all bear her mark. She has successfully pushed to moderate the President's image, if not his policies, on health care (persuading him to embrace hmo legislation) and the environment, after his rejection of tough arsenic standards and a treaty on global warming. When piecemeal statements on the Middle East crisis reinforced the impression that he was not engaged, she was among those who urged a formal Rose Garden speech outlining the President's position.

Even as she announced her departure, Hughes made sure to frame the President's embrace of her new role as one more sign of an evolved executive who knows that family comes first. It was the family impulse behind Hughes' departure that most fascinated commentators. From the outset, the Bush White House has boasted of its family-friendly atmosphere, with the office lights turned off at 7 p.m. so parents could be home with their children. Aides snickered that this was true only for top people like Hughes — yet even she ultimately wanted out. "This is not a defeat for working women," Hughes insists. "I think it is encouraging that you can make choices that are good for your family and be involved with the most powerful person in the world."

Hughes will still be involved. She will continue to edit Bush's speeches and plan the Administration's broader strategy from the Austin home that she has owned for years (her stepdaughter and granddaughter also live in Austin). She plans to travel to Washington for a few days every couple of weeks. And when the President asked if she would take her place by his side on the campaign plane in 2004, Hughes readily agreed. Until then, there will be plenty of phone calls from the White House. Some of them will no doubt wake up Robert. But at least he'll be sleeping in his own bed.