- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 27, 2002

Call it another sign of unmistakable progress. When The Washington Post reported in its lead paragraph, as it did on Wednesday, that the president's "most intimate political aide" had announced her departure from the White House, nobody had to wonder if an amorous White House intern had been reassigned to the Pentagon. Moreover, when presidential counselor Karen Hughes revealed that she would be leaving in the summer so that members of her "homesick" family, including, pointedly, herself, could return to their Texas roots, she convinced even cynical journalists, who would normally be expecting an imminent indictment or a journey through the profitable speaking circuit. Hardly surprising. Mrs. Hughes, after all, is the aide who literally home-schooled her son on the campaign plane during the fall of 2000.

So, 15 months into President Bush's four-year term, the most powerful woman in the administration and probably the most powerful female aide ever to occupy a West Wing office will be going home. But she will not be going into political retirement. "Karen Hughes will be changing her address," President Bush said, "but she will still be in my inner circle." No doubt she will. Mrs. Hughes, who will be visiting Washington on a regular basis, wasted no time volunteering to help Mr. Bush write his State of the Union address next January at Camp David.

Widely described as the president's "alter-ego" she wrote most of his autobiography, after all Mrs. Hughes is also one of only a few people who can tell Mr. Bush, "Mr. President, you're wrong." In fact, in December 2000, when Mr. Bush announced Mrs. Hughes' appointment as counselor, she promised, "I will always give you my unvarnished opinions." To which Mr. Bush replied, "No question about that," a comment that elicited laughter but obviously spoke the truth.

While the president frequently called Mrs. Hughes "High Prophet," the nickname he had given her, most White House officials referred to the 45-year-old, 5-foot-10 confidante as "The Enforcer." In the latter role, Mrs. Hughes clearly succeeded. More than anybody else, she controlled the White House "message" and the evolving image of the Bush presidency. With the help, perhaps, of her size-12 shoes, she was personally responsible for the fact that this has been one of the most leak-proof and disciplined White Houses in modern history.

It is worth noting, however, that in recent weeks that message has been anything but consistent. Consider the protectionist decisions involving steel and lumber, which have hurt the president's image as a committed free-trader. Signing campaign-finance "reform" legislation didn't help either, considering that Mr. Bush earlier characterized the bill as unconstitutional. If Mrs. Hughes told the president that his decisions on steel and campaign-finance were "wrong," one hopes that her views on such matters will prevail the next time.

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