West Wing Story: Karen, We Hardly Knew Ye

Back in Texas, when George W. Bush was trying to decide if he should run for president, he told his longtime Texas adviser Karen Hughes, that he wouldn't run without her. But now that Bush is settled in, he'll have to go the rest of the way sans Hughes. Arguably Bush's closest and most trusted aide, she officially resigned today. "I have made a difficult but right decision to move our family home back to Texas," Hughes told reporters this morning at a surprise briefing.

In Hughes's case, the often tired "I want to spend more time with my family" excuse is true. Her 15-year-old son, Robert, had not been happy with Washington or his mother's hours. The president "respected" her decision, Hughes says, but it is a big blow to him personally and to the working infrastructure of the White House.

The daily communications meeting fell silent when she told her staff the news this morning. With the exception of a few top staffers, no one seemed to know. Perhaps it was a testament to the tight ship she ran (leaks were punished) that the word had not gotten out. She said she was so proud of the "outstanding" staff she had assembled and that they were ready to take the day-to-day reins. With Hughes leaving, Communications Director Dan Bartlett will take on a larger role and Press Secretary Ari Fleischer will allow him more freedom. But no one can really replace Hughes, who will remain an influential-if distant-adviser when she leaves at the end of the summer. She'll travel back to Washington and be on teleconferences from Austin for big speeches and strategic decisions. "Karen Hughes will be changing her address, but she will still be in my inner circle," the president said today.

In the White House, titles usually don't tell you much. Hughes's official job description was vague: "Counselor to the President." But the very imprecision of her job description speaks volumes about how powerful she really is. The job was tailor made for her. She oversaw the press shop and speechwriting and had a heavy hand in overall communications strategy. Her biggest talent was that she knew the president's values and how to express them in his brand of plain talk. The president's chief speechwriter, Mike Gerson, once told me that Hughes and the president would make the same edits to speeches before they even spoke to each other.

Bush trusts Hughes completely. Her ambition was for him, not herself. She has been a total loyalist-coming down on others if they weren't just as loyal. A former TV reporter in Dallas, Hughes felt comfortable with reporters. But she was not afraid to let them know-loudly-when she thought they'd been unfair to her boss. She has a placard on her desk with a quote from Winston Churchill: "I was not the lion but it fell to me to give the lion's roar." During the campaign, a colleague of mine at NEWSWEEK gave her the nickname Nurse Ratchet. At nearly six- feet tall, she could be an intimidating presence. Despite her tough exterior, she was hurt at some characterizations. She was deeply offended recently when a USA Today article suggested that she was a control freak.

Hughes did micromanage. Hughes, not Flesicher, for example, made the big decisions about press relations. But Bush valued her tight control. A day didn't pass that he didn't utter "Has Karen seen this?" or "Get Karen." I have been sitting in her office more than once when he has called or summoned her to the Oval Office. She kept a piece of unvarnished wood on her desk to remind her of her job: tell Bush the truth. It often fell to her to tell him when his misspeaking was undermining him-when he referred to the terrorists as "folks" or said "misunderestimated." Bush once burst into the staff cabin on Air Force One and shouted at her in jest: "I'm going to misunderestimate folks!"

Hughes-along with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice-were the two most powerful women any White House has ever seen. But unlike Rice, Hughes is also a mom. Other working mothers in the White House took the news hard. And the White House loses a common-sense voice for women's issues. Hughes is married to Jerry Hughes, a kind lawyer (not an oxymoron in his case), and helped raise his daughter from his first marriage. Hughes is also very close to her son Robert, who has his mom's piercing blue eyes. During the tail end of the campaign, she homeschooled Robert aboard Bush's plane. Often, she would juggle helping Robert with math homework and editing a speech. Cynics who dismissed the move as a play for women voters clearly never saw the two together. The warmth and closeness between them was obvious.

Her son's need were her biggest stumbling block in taking the White House job. Before signing up, she told Bush that she had to take time for her family. Bush was always supportive: telling her to bring Robert and Jerry up to Camp David for the weekend when she had to be there for important meetings. Unlike Bush, she was not an early riser. But she put in 12-hour days and lots and lots of phone time from home. Often when I'd see Hughes, she'd be trying to get out to make one of Robert's baseball games. She even reserved Wednesdays to leave early to be with her family. But too often a crisis would derail her plans.

Many thought Hughes's influence would diminish during the war in Afghanistan. She did not sit in on National Security Council meetings and was not privy to much of the intelligence. But, instead, it grew. It was Hughes who struck on the idea of speaking out against the treatment of women in Afghanistan. And she ran the Coalition Information Centers-the rapid-response center set up in Washington and London to respond to Osama bin Laden and criticism abroad.

An Army brat, Hughes understood the military. Despite her friendship with Bush, she always respected chain of command and called him Sir. It was her faith in the uniform that made her convinced that the National Guard would be reassuring (not frightening as some aides aruged) in the nation's airports. Her father served in Vietnam and Korea and was the last governor of the Panama Canal Zone. She once told me about crying at the airport as she said goodbye to her father who was leaving for Vietnam. Last week, she took time out from her day to take her father and mother to visit the Vietnam and Korean War memorials.

Hughes never loved Washington. There was always a sense of impermanence in her own mind. She and her husband haven't bought a house here. Her closest friends were at her church. She once told Bush that she found politics "un-Christian." She especially didn't love Washington reporters and the leaking game. Like Bush, she was straightforward, black and white. She didn't get the game played here of selective leaking and off-the-record nuggets. At one point during the campaign, she offered to resign if Bush thought her style didn't serve him well. He refused. From his perspective she has served him tremendously well. But this time, when she wanted to resign, he couldn't refuse. "Our roots are there," Hughes said today. "I guess we're a little homesick." That is a sentiment Bush understands well.