The press licks a hand that never fed it.

The press licks a hand that never fed it.

The press licks a hand that never fed it.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
April 24 2002 6:48 PM

Bon Voyage, Karen Hughes

A leak-proof vessel sails for Texas.

Karen Hughes
Karen Hughes

About all that was missing was the mournful tolling of church bells. The resignation of Karen Hughes, Washington's first seemingly indispensable woman, was orchestrated with the leak-proof precision that is her trademark. In the 12 hours following her surprise Tuesday morning appearance in the White House briefing room, the mood of the press went through three distinct cycles: 1) gape-jawed amazement; 2) a desperate search for some hidden policy rift with Karl Rove; and 3) the stunned conclusion (best reflected in Maureen Dowd's column and a Mark Leibovich piece in the Washington Post"Style" section) that maybe women, unlike men, are telling the truth when they say they're leaving to spend more time with their families.

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Rarely has the departure of any presidential aide been greeted with such a torrent of laudatory press clips. Instead of the usual score-settling derogatory comments from anonymous White House rivals, Hughes was honored with phrases like "trusted and powerful," "fierce loyalty," and "ultimate power player." About the only morning-after dispute revolved around the 45-year-old Hughes' height: "6-feet" (USA Today), "almost six-feet" (Boston Globe) and "5-foot-10 with a size 12 shoe" (Washington Post).

A cynical bunch, White House reporters normally reserve laudatory adjectives for administration insiders who are also cherished sources. But when it comes time to "feed the beast" (former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers' description of the ravenous press corps), all Hughes ever dished out was bland and watery gruel. As Bush's communications director, she has been democratic to a fault, cleaving to an equal-opportunity policy built around a consistent lack of information and insight. Virtually the only premeditated leaks on Hughes' watch have been prefabricated advances on presidential initiatives given to the cable networks and the Associated Press. By not playing the traditional game of rewarding the New York Times one day and the Wall Street Journal the next, Hughes has pulled off the neat trick of neither personalizing nor poisoning her relations with the press.

Hughes, whose style seems lifted from corporate public-relations departments, has been the perfect counterpoint to the first president with an MBA degree. Remember that this is a hyperorganized administration that, before Sept. 11, proudly brandished gray binders labeled "Long-Term Strategic Plans." The Bush team operates on the theory that centralized control is the only way to avoid mistakes. The emblematic story about the control-freak communications director was unearthed by Larry McQuillan (my USA Today colleague): Hughes has been vetting all press invitations to Bush aides to attend the upcoming black-tie White House Correspondents Dinner and deciding which aides should sit at which tables.

But it is a mistake to portray Hughes as Cruella de Vil persecuting hapless staffers who dare have unauthorized conversations with reporters. The no-leaks Bush doctrine is so ingrained at the White House that punitive action is rarely required. Also, as I know well from my days as a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, it is nearly impossible to catch occasional leakers. About the only time that a Bush insider could recall Hughes becoming enraged by a tell-all newspaper story was, curiously enough, over a minor snippet in Lloyd Grove's Washington Post gossip column. When Bush rolled out his first budget a year ago, Grove reported that OMB aides had wanted to play the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" as they distributed their budget books to the press. Maybe Hughes has nurtured a longtime animus toward Mick Jagger or maybe the episode struck her as too reminiscent of Clinton-era antics.

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There was no doubting Hughes' sincerity when she declared at her press conference, "I want to take my family back to Texas." For those of us who remembered her good-natured son Robert, now 15, accompanying Hughes on the road during the closing weeks of the 2000 campaign, it did seem strange that this sweet kid was enrolled at St. Albans, the overly competitive Washington prep school that helped mold Al Gore. If Hughes was naturally suspicious about the inbred self-important rituals of Washington's permanent elite, her prejudices were undoubtedly reinforced at every meeting of St. Albans' parents.

Hughes intends to keep her hand in the day-to-day operations of the White House, talking to the president regularly on the phone from Texas and making cameo appearances in Washington to help craft major Bush speeches. In all likelihood, she will find it far easier to maintain her ties of affection with the president and his inner circle than to retain her influence from afar. In fact, her departure may open for door for other Bushies, who want to cash in on their White House pedigree while the president is still aloft in the polls.

At some point in every administration, a president looks around at his senior White House staff and wonders, "Where have my friends gone?" After the first midterm elections, every White House undergoes a partial transformation. But Bush will survive, just as Franklin Roosevelt endured the premature death of Louis Howe, Dwight Eisenhower coped with the forced ouster of Sherman Adams, and Ronald Reagan prospered without Jim Baker close at hand. For all the prestige that Washington awards to the coterie that rules the White House, no one is indispensable. Not even the sainted Karen Hughes.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last seven presidential campaigns and just completed a fellowship at the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He can be reached at wshapiro@belnord.org.