Public diplomacy in this sense was killed off in the 1990s by Jesse Helms, the right-wing Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, who slashed the USIA and diminished it into a PR wing of the State Department.
Hughes was starting to revive some of the old agency's traditions. Nick Cull, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California and a close follower of Hughes' tenure, says that she has rebuilt the institutions to the point where the next president—if he or she wanted to—could productively put them to use. "She's laid the railroad tracks," Cull said in a phone interview. Now what's needed is a railroad—which is to say, a policy that's worth putting on the tracks and a president to start the engine.
There is an old adage that Hughes seems to have started to take to heart about public diplomacy: Actions speak louder than words.
When she took that trip to the Middle East two years ago, besides making a fool of herself in public, she also listened to many people—officials and ordinary citizens—in private, and she came away realizing that helping to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would do more to improve America's image than any PR campaign.
She came back and told that to President Bush. He responded by referring in a few speeches to the need for a Palestinian state—but he never did anything diplomatically to help bring the state into being.
When a reporter recently asked how the Blackwater security firm's shooting of Iraqi civilians would affect America's image in the world, Hughes replied, "Negative events never help."
That may be why Hughes decided to go home. The negative events were piling too high. There was nothing she could do. And while she might not have been the best choice or the most sophisticated strategist for the job, there was really nothing anyone in her position could do.
George W. Bush put Karen Hughes in the job because he thought it needed someone who could communicate the goodness of America, and Hughes had been his communications director. This was the same reason he'd originally hired Charlotte Beers, a savvy Madison Avenue ad executive—and, after Beers washed out, Margaret Tutwiler, who'd been James Baker's hard-driving spokeswoman when Bush's father was president.
Hughes initially embraced the job with relish, but she dived in way over her head. Some who know her say she eventually realized her inadequacy and altered her approach—away from being the public diplomat and toward building up the office.
It may be that, as she focused more on the substance and less on the flash, she realized that what she'd been asked to do simply couldn't be done. If the measure of success was how well she was selling U.S. policy, she was failing because there was no good story to sell.