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March 17, 2004

Karen Hughes: Work-At-Home Mom Or Material Girl?

Because of her low profile and the fact she’s supposedly “off the payroll,” it was surprising to see Karen Hughes all over the t.v. news shows the other day defending President Bush’s 9/11 commercials. If you believe the p.r., Hughes has always played a high profile role in every Bush campaign, and this election would be no different. On the other hand, as Hughes reminded Larry King right before the State of the Union speech ( and everyone else who’s interviewed her in the past two years), she’s remained in close business contact with Bush, and has been so involved with the White House communications effort, it’s as if she never left.

If you read profiles about Hughes and Karl Rove in the White House, you can see there is a lot of competition between the two. And with all the p.r. mistakes the Administration has been making (the Medicare sell-out; the lousy State of the Union speech; the gay marriage push; the Gun bill that backfired; Cheney’s compulsive and highly public lying; the 9/11 ad; the Haiti embarrassment; the “offshoring” manufacturing czar, etc.), you have to wonder if anyone is in charge.

My guess is that Hughes has had less influence than she says she’s had, but she saw her opening when Rove’s ultra-conservative strategy began to falter and has been exerting gradually more influence. However, it looks like her more moderate play-calling (including an intense White House focus on anything concerning “women’s issues,” and Bush’s recent “make nice with the Europeans” campaign) isn’t working well either. (If anything, it makes Bush look like the flip-flopper.)

In the midst of the tension, it’s interesting to revisit the question of why Hughes left in the first place. Having gained unusual access to the White House “p.r. genius” before she returned to Texas, Esquire writer Ron Suskind describes a scene in which Hughes has just received four large books on presidential power from Karl Rove. Tossing them away, Hughes comments: “At this point, I think I have a pretty good idea of how power really operates.”

I think there are three possible reasons why Hughes left, although all might be involved to some extent. For someone as preoccupied with power as she is, the idea of publicly sharing the strategy limelight was probably too much for her to absorb. Second, White House staffers intimated to Suskind that Hughes craved the glory and the attention, but had no love for the long hours. As a bit of a primma donna, Hughes could hang out in Texas, earn her merit badge, and not have to sweat too much.

While on the subject of “earning,” the third possible reason has to do with greed. There was a somewhat innocuous article last week in the NYT about former government officials who were earning good incomes from speaking fees. The person most prominently featured happened to be Karen Hughes. Apparently, Hughes commands one of the highest speaking fees of anybody right now, by virture of her close ties to the sitting Administration. According to the article, Hughes is raking in $50,000 a talk. It went on to say that, in just a three week period in January, Hughes gave seven speeches, including four in a single week.

Leave it to the “restoring faith in the office” Bush administration to allow former officials to continue their government duties on a casual basis while simultaneously profiting from it as private citizens. The gross arrogance aside, it’s such a blatant conflict of interest, there should be a new name for it.

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