Look Who's Back

She's back. Karen Hughes, the former "counselor to the president," was at the White House Tuesday for the first time since she moved her family home to Austin, Texas, last month. She no longer has her grand title, her West Wing office or even her White House pass, but her clout is very much intact--and she's putting it to use this summer.

The security guards at the Northwest gate at 1600 Pennsylvania just waved her through yesterday without asking for ID. (They recognized her even with the tan she was sporting from two weeks at the beach.) She had breakfast with national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice, attended the signing ceremony for the trade-promotion-authority bill and then boarded Air Force One with President Bush for his trip home to Texas. "Being away makes you really appreciate the thrill and the grandeur and the honor of walking into the White House," she told reporters on the plane.

Hughes will be spending much of August at Bush's Crawford ranch during his monthlong "working vacation," as the White House insists on calling it. They are sensitive to criticism that the president's takes too much vacation. The first time he took nearly a month off was after some six months in office and it fed into a perception that Bush didn't work that hard. The criticism was savage. "Unwind? When the hell does this guy wind?" David Letterman joked on late night TV last year.

The White House went on the defensive: aides whipped up a WESTERN WHITE HOUSE logo to tack up behind the podium at the makeshift briefing room at the Crawford Elementary School. They cut his vacation short a few days, apparently so it wouldn't be the longest on record (which is held by Richard Nixon at 31 days). The Republican National Committee did a focus group on the president's vacation. Pollsters found that most people believe that the president is never really on vacation.

That's the line they're sticking with this year. The president, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer explained the other day, "is going to bring the White House with him to Crawford." But all their efforts didn't stop Letterman from making fun of Bush's vacation again this year. The other night he gave the "Top Ten Signs President Bush Needs A Vacation." No. 7: It's been, what, two weeks since he went fishing?

Late-night comedy and the RNC focus group agree on one thing: Bush needs to remain proactive on vacation, especially now with the Iraq situation bubbling up and the economy flagging. This month Bush will meet with his defense secretary as well as the president of Mexico. He will host an economic forum at Baylor University in Waco. And he will visit at least 15 cities, spending about half his vacation time on public events in politically significant states. At least once a week, he'll attend a so-called "political activity" (read: fund-raiser).

But the main thrust of August is what the White House bills as Bush's "Home to the Heartland" return tour. This is Hughes's specialty: keeping Bush in touch with average people and their issues. He'll appear at events with "real Americans," as one top aide explained, and talk to them about their economic "concerns." There's nothing like a photo op with a prize-winning pig at the Iowa State Fair to get out the message: I'm not from Washington, D.C., where pork has a whole different meaning.

Bush began his tour today with a trip to Mississippi, where he held a roundtable with community leaders to talk about pension protection and retirement security. He also attended a $1 million "political activity" for congressional candidate Chip Pickering. The Bushies are going to leave it to others to tout the president's "record of accomplishment," the top aide explains. Hughes, who is now paid by the RNC, led the way on Air Force One. She told reporters that the president had inherited the flailing economy but, she argued, he had gotten the tax cut through at just the right time. The spinmaven we got to know on the 2000 campaign was back and on message.

Even though Bush has called his "High Prophet" almost every day over the last month (a couple times during the drive home to Texas alone), her absence has taken a toll on the smooth operations of the White House. Hughes used to run the daily "message meeting" in her office. Her meetings were disciplined: people sat almost at attention, there was little cross chatter and there was no leaking. Now, Communications Director Dan Bartlett runs them. Bartlett is smart, but young, and has big shoes to fill. And he's got competition from Fleischer, who is not shy about expressing his opinions even when they differ from Barlett's. Hughes used to settle their differences. With her gone, inevitably, the meetings have lost some of their discipline.

The other week there was even a leak! Intrepid Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier got an aide to tell him about a disagreement in one of those meetings. According to the AP story (which prompted a tongue-lashing at the next meeting), Fleischer and Bartlett debated whether Bush should take questions from reporters during a Rose Garden ceremony. Fleischer said Bush should in order to diffuse questions about Harken Energy before an upcoming press conference. Bartlett said it would be too distracting from the message of the day.

Bartlett won. Bush didn't take questions at the ceremony and ended up answering Harken questions at the press conference. There was predictable griping that Bush was being pulled off message. Hughes has no plans to run those meetings when she comes back every two weeks as a consultant starting this fall. But she will help Bush stay on message--and her former staff, too.