Hughes exit to leave huge White House comms void

WASHINGTON: The White House communications team will lose its first lady of message development and its last line of defense when Karen Hughes, counselor to the President and one of his most loyal advisors, leaves the Oval Office later this summer.

WASHINGTON: The White House communications team will lose its first lady of message development and its last line of defense when Karen Hughes, counselor to the President and one of his most loyal advisors, leaves the Oval Office later this summer.

Hughes was President Bush's original director of communications, relinquishing the post in April 2001 to take on a more comprehensive role. But according to those who worked with her, Hughes' influence over the administration's message only increased with the move to counselor. Nearly every piece of White House communication received her input or approval before leaving the building.

"She's the chief traffic controller,

said Juleanna Glover Weiss, former press secretary to Vice President Dick Cheney. "One of only a few people in the White House who, when they said, 'The President will be fine with that,' you could take it to the bank."

The President sought to minimize the impact of Hughes' departure, insisting she would continue to advise him informally from Texas, where she plans to return with her family. But White House veterans were quick to stress the challenges of advising from afar.

"You cannot impact in a real way the day-to-day workings of the White House, or the communications of the White House, unless you're at the White House,

said Joe Lockhart, former press secretary to President Clinton.

"I think she will remain one of the people that he feels out on important decisions, but on the day-to-day message of the White House, you have to be there. You have to be immersed in it."

Glover Weiss agreed that Hughes' absence creates "a large vacuum,

but added, "(it) will be filled by the personalities that exist there now," naming director of communications Dan Bartlett, press secretary Ari Fleischer, deputy director of communications Jim Wilkinson, and deputy press secretaries Claire Buchanan and Scott McClellan.

Hughes' talent is a unique one, however, and many in Washington are speculating as to how the loss of her voice would be felt.

"Bush relied on her for a lot of his themes,

said Doug Hattaway, press secretary to Al Gore and Hughes' Democratic counterpart during the 2000 campaign.

"It'll be interesting to see how their message changes with her at a greater distance."

"This is a President who is a very conservative person, both personally and politically,

added Lockhart. "I think Hughes has been able to soften some of the right-wing policies and make them more tailored to the mainstream."

Hughes has yet to publicly announce her future career plans.

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