Hughes exit leaves White House vacuum

Monday's departure of top adviser to Bush leaves aides jockeying to fill her shoes.

It was really too hot and sticky to hang out on the balcony, even though the view across the driveway to the White House residence was a stunner.

So the crowd of reporters who had gathered to bid farewell to presidential counselor Karen Hughes moved indoors, gravitating toward the honey-roasted nuts and chips, and chatted with the woman who knows the president so well she can finish his sentences.

Ironically, the soiree for the adviser responsible for George Bush's public message was off the record. But for anyone who has observed the White House communications effort of the past 18 months – a critically important function, especially with a war on – it's obvious that Monday's departure of Ms. Hughes will require a significant readjustment for the president and his top advisers. Hughes, who says she is returning to Austin, Texas, for family reasons, may be only a phone call away, but there's still no substitute for proximity, analysts say.

In an uncharacteristically blunt assessment in this month's Esquire magazine, White House Chief Of Staff Andy Card says the president, first lady, and even Hughes herself are "in a state of denial" about the exit of perhaps the most powerful woman White House official in history. Of particular concern: When Hughes leaves, there will be no counterbalance to Karl Rove, the president's very conservative political guru.

Downplaying an earlier assessment

But since Mr. Card's comments became public, the White House has sought to underplay them. In a recent phone conversation, Card said Esquire "overstated" his remarks "a little bit." He then spun an exact opposite take on the first high-level resignation at the Bush White House.

"No one is irreplaceable," he said in his distinctly calm voice. "There won't be one person replacing Karen Hughes. It will be the work of several people [to] fill the gap she is leaving."

The real impact is likely somewhere in between Card's initial prognosis in Esquire, and his later view that imply nary a ripple will be left in the wake of the outspoken, nearly 6-ft. tall Hughes.

True, the White House staff has gotten to know the rhythm, needs, and expectations of their commander in chief as well as each other in the past 18 months. But no one is as in tune with Bush's words and thoughts as Hughes, a former TV reporter who has worked for Bush for eight years. His speeches pass through her hands, where she turns Washington speak into Bush's brand of Texas plain talk. She briefed the nation on September 11. She saw the potential for focusing on the plight of Afghan women.

Unguarded pieces of advice

"She is one of those people who can talk to the president with the bark off," says Martha Kumar, a presidential scholar who specializes in White House communication. "There are not a lot of people who can do that in any White House."

Working as a consultant for the Republican National Committee, Hughes plans to be in close phone contact with Bush, and fly back to Washington a couple of times a month. She'll no longer have a 45-person staff, including the press secretary, to manage and she will pull back from day-to-day work.

But she says that, as in the past, she'll be there for the big speeches, the strategic planning, and the president's next campaign. Saving her energy, apparently, she does not expect to work on the campaigns of Republicans running for Texas governor or the US Senate, as had been speculated. But she will be able to offer the president the view from the hinterlands – a perspective that's often missing inside the Oval Office bubble.

Still just a phone call away

The White House insists the plan is workable, and that the president won't lose his alter ego when Hughes and her lawyer husband and teenage son are back in Austin. "Whether she calls him from upstairs (in the West Wing) or from Austin, it's just a few extra digits," says spokesman Ari Fleischer. "The president will continue to have her counsel."

But there simply is no substitute for proximity, says Ms. Kumar, especially in today's fast-paced White House. The president and Hughes may talk on the phone, but she won't be able to have all of the pieces of information that she has now.

At the same time, inevitable jockeying takes place. People will be looking to fill whatever influence-vacuum emerges. The White House is going to have to adjust, Kumar says.

Reshuffle already underway

Part of that adjustment has already begun. Bush senior aide Dan Bartlett has increasingly taken over the day-to-day operations of the communications staff since Hughes announced her pending departure in April. Incredibly young for someone with such influence, Mr. Bartlett has actually worked for Bush longer than Hughes has – he joined his first campaign for Texas governor in 1993. Damage control is said to be his specialty.

But if it's a counterbalance to Rove that Card is worried about, it's not likely to be found in "Barty," as the president calls him. As a student at the University of Texas, he worked for Rove's consulting firm. "The only reason I'm here, I owe to Karl Rove," Bartlett said in the Dallas Morning News last week.

In the end, Card says it will be up to him, as chief of staff, to ensure that the president receives a balance of views.

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