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The Nation

Valued Bush Confidant to Leave White House

Politics: President's counselor cites family reasons. Move creates a void in role of enforcer.

April 24, 2002|EDWIN CHEN and DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Karen Hughes, the longtime advisor to President Bush who became the most influential woman ever to work on a White House staff, said Tuesday that she plans to resign this summer and return to Texas with her "homesick" family.

Her departure, the first significant change in the White House staff since Bush's inauguration 15 months ago, will deprive the president of his closest political confidant and sounding board and most trusted wordsmith.

Hughes, 45, holds the title of counselor to the president and manages the White House press and public relations offices. But her roles as an all-purpose presidential advisor and relentless enforcer of Bush's wishes has made her one of the administration's most powerful figures.

"I don't think it can be replaced," a senior White House official said of the Bush-Hughes relationship. "I think new structures will have to be put in place."

Hughes said she decided to leave because "I thought it was important for my family to live in Texas." Associates said her husband, Jerry, a lawyer, and her son, Robert, 15, a high school freshman, wanted to return to Austin.

Hughes and Bush said she would continue to advise the president after she moves, though not as a full-time member of his staff.

"She may be changing addresses, but she's not leaving my inner circle," Bush said.

But other aides said her departure would inevitably alter the workings of the Bush White House, which has been a notably disciplined operation, with fewer leaks and internal rivalries than most of its predecessors--in part because of Hughes' ceaseless insistence on discretion.

"You can't take someone that important out of the day-to-day operation and not have it change," said a former Bush aide.

Move May Cause Drop in Staff Efficiency

Hughes' departure might make the Bush staff less efficient and sure-footed, at least temporarily, other associates said.

"She is in some ways his alter ego," a White House official said. "He relies on her a lot and trusts her a lot, and she has an uncanny knack of knowing what he'll like."

"They might lose a step for a while . . . because they'll have to run more questions past the president," a former aide said.

But current and former aides said they do not expect the White House staff to become looser and less disciplined after she leaves.

"That part comes from the president," said one. "She doesn't need to be there for it to be enforced. It's the culture."

As if to prove the point, the aides and former aides refused to be quoted by name, except when offering praise for Hughes.

Hughes' departure will leave Karl Rove, Bush's chief political advisor, as the sole remaining member of his innermost circle of aides--those who served him during his years as governor of Texas and his presidential campaign--at the top of the White House staff.

But a former campaign aide noted that communications director Dan Bartlett--Hughes' apparent successor in responsibilities if not in title--worked for Bush in Austin even before Hughes joined the staff in 1994. "Don't underestimate Dan," he said.

When Hughes took up residence 15 months ago in a corner office on the second floor of the West Wing, she dismissed suggestions that her gender might influence policy.

Despite occasional indications that her Republicanism might be a shade less conservative than Bush's, Hughes saw her role not as changing the president's views but as helping him articulate them in a way that would appeal to voters in the political center.

Still, it is now clear that the White House will soon lose its most powerful and ardent champion of women and working mothers.

It was Hughes who wrote into Bush's address to the nation nine days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks a line urging parents to "live your lives and hug your children."

Trip to Austin Leads to Decision

As one of several senior White House staffers who are mothers of children still at home, Hughes made it a point to leave work by 5:30 p.m. at least once a week to spend time with her son, often at his baseball games.

Hughes said her family's longing to be back in Texas crystallized while she was in Austin on the first weekend in April, watching a close friend's son play soccer.

"I realized that I was missing seeing my friend's children grow up and that my son, likewise, was missing the opportunity to go to his friends' homes and be in touch with his friends' parents," she said.

Her son, Robert, attended Washington's exclusive St. Albans School, whose alumni include many children of political figures, but he never felt comfortable there, associates said.

Hughes said she made her decision now because she faced a May 1 deadline to inform St. Albans whether Robert would be returning.

"My son is going into his final three years of high school . . . and we wanted him to have his roots in Texas," she said.

During much of the 2000 presidential campaign, Robert joined his mother on her travels with Bush and was home-schooled aboard the campaign plane.

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