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White House Chief of Focus

April 25, 2002

Karen Hughes' announcement that she is stepping down as counselor to President Bush attracted the kind of publicity she has never sought. Implacable and loyal, she has totally subordinated herself to Bush. Until now.

Disliking Washington life, her family pushing for a return to Texas, she's leaving her full-time post. She might be the only political appointee who was ever truthful about quitting for home and family. But in the short time she has been in government, Hughes' biggest accomplishment may have been to crack the barrier to women at the innermost circle of the White House. Hughes, you might say, has been the Bush team's Hillary Clinton.

Like Hillary Clinton, Hughes was the most trusted advisor to the president. The staff was terrified of her. The press corps called her Nurse Ratched, after the ferocious head nurse in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." She championed women and working mothers. There the similarities end. Clinton created a furor by appearing to work as a semi-president; Hughes was scarcely visible in an administration that strives for a CEO-like chain of command.

Hughes' fingerprints on the administration start with its spin-control operation. Press spokesman Ari Fleischer is her protege. Bush's major speeches, from his post-9/11 speech to his State of the Union address, were relentlessly gone over by Hughes to boil complicated ideas down to plain speaking. Small wonder that Bush chose her to write his campaign biography, "A Charge to Keep."

But now Hughes' declaration that she is going to look after her own charges, chiefly her 15-year-old-son, has created a lot of tongue-wagging over whether working mothers really can have family and hearth.

The fact is that Hughes' pressure-cooker job doesn't resemble the average working mom's predicament. The White House, where presidential aides are expected to work 30-hour days, is not a family-friendly environment. The surprising thing isn't that Hughes bailed out, but that, after two years of campaigning, she didn't do so sooner. And she isn't exactly cutting all ties.

What Hughes' departure does is to reveal a White House subject to the intrigue that has always characterized Washington. Will Fleischer gain power or be edged out now that his patron is leaving? How far will Karl Rove, Hughes' more conservative nemesis in the administration, ascend? How will the president himself cope without Hughes to keep him focused? It's a tribute to Hughes that the buzz is not what she will do outside the White House but how the White House will cope without her.

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