Karen Hughes' priorities

Posted: Apr 24, 2002 12:00 AM
In Washington, one is more likely to find people who believe tabloid stories on alien invaders than people who accept at face value a pure motive behind the resignation of a top White House aide. Many people have resigned from powerful posts in Washington, but in recent history those resignations stemmed from a scandal, criminal investigation, or indictment. Not so with Karen Hughes, who's leaving her post as Counselor to the President-Strategic Planning, Communications and Speechwriting and moving back to Texas principally because she and her husband care deeply about their young son, Robert, 15. What a concept -- someone who actually practices family values and doesn't just talk about them for political gain! Hughes' choice is, as one top White House assistant described it to me, "one of the most admirable decisions I have ever seen in my life." Why is that? It's because the culture of Washington is so different from that of the rest of the country. To Karen and her husband, finding a way to spend more time with their son isn't a sacrifice. It's investment in a child's life. Hughes' choice also speaks volumes about priorities. At a time when so many children are tossed into daycare, sometimes for selfish reasons, and many married couples split up, again often for selfish reasons, Hughes has struck a powerful blow for doing the right thing. I traveled with Hughes and her son during the 2000 campaign. She never treated him as secondary to her "real work." He is her real work and the other, while important, is less so. If you paid attention to what Hughes has been saying recently, her resignation is not that surprising. A recent news story quoted her as stressing the importance of reserving Sundays for church and family. Hughes sees this pattern of giving faith and family prominent position as setting an example -- much as Jimmy Carter said he did - giving other families permission to do the same. Hughes said I was the only person who'd mentioned the story to her and that she assumed official Washington doesn't like to admit to such priorities. Hughes said several long-time White House staff (mostly women but some men) had told her that speaking out about these things made it easier for them to make their families a high priority, too. The loss of Hughes from the White House (she'll still advise President Bush from Texas) removes Bush's top Christian aide from his daily presence. Both Hughes and Bush are serious practitioners of their faith (Hughes and her family church-shopped until settling in at National Presbyterian in Washington). The faith of both influences the way they see the world and policy issues. Most high-profile people in Washington don't get that because most here don't "get" God. Hughes and Bush do and people with sensitive antennae can pick up on that influence in many domestic and foreign policy decisions, especially post-Sept. 11. There is a seductive Washington culture -- a Nixon aide once diagnosed its addictive powers as coming from "the smell of the White House paint." It has a negative and corrosive influence on many who come here. The Washington culture requires total allegiance and commitment. It will understand if your family suffers -- even if it breaks up -- and offer you the consolation of others who have sacrificed family for career, advancement and ego. But the Washington culture can never replace the family. There's also a Texas culture, to which Hughes and her family are returning. Only those who have lived in Texas -- as I have, twice -- understand it. Texas culture can be far more supportive of the family than the culture of Washington. Texas culture includes the family, while Washington culture so often creates an environment of exclusion, mostly through its demands on everyone's time. Technology and his own visits to the ranch in Crawford will allow President Bush to stay in touch with Hughes for her seasoned advice. But this investment she has decided to make for her son and husband is something she will never regret -- and they will never forget.