It's a role she must have thought would make her a star. But flitting around the world like Mary Poppins, trying to make America's message go down with a spoonful of sugar and a jolly song about good-time Uncle Sam, hasn't worked for Karen Hughes.
She has become the target of critics who will never, for example, let her forget how her two personal ventures to pitch US policies to audiences in the Middle East proved so embarrassing both to herself and her client.
Hughes, gregarious by nature and in the past presumed inured to political criticism, isn't seeking out any public spotlights these days. It's a new scenario: Mary Poppins shot down in mid-flight and mid-fancy.
Hughes came into the job as America's public diplomacy czar promising much change. There has been little of that, so little that I owe Lee Levitt, a New York PR traditionalist, an admission that I erred in writing in PRWeek on September 5, 2005, that he was wrong in dismissing Hughes' plans for personal trips to meet with ambassadors overseas.
Levitt insisted that instead of assuming such a personal, on-the-spot role, Hughes should hire PR firms "with the requisite, skills, experience, and competent management already in place" in the Middle East. I said I didn't think much of that idea, and I added that Hughes deserved a chance bring her promised new ideas into place in the field of public diplomacy.
Now she's had the chance. Is it time for her to go?
At another time and under other circumstances, she would be back in Texas now, clearing her files of all those clippings that early on praised her as a perfect fit for the top communications job at the Department of State. But who in the world is out there to replace her? It's a bitch of a job under any circumstances, and, with a change of administration charging at us, it's a short-termer. It's an incredibly thankless job, too. Ask Hughes' predecessors. When the legendary advertising ace, Charlotte Beers, and veteran Washington communicator Margaret Tutwiler gave up the job in quick-time succession, neither got a "well-done" from the Washington bureaucracy. Beers in particular was hustled out of town so fast the country's entire advertising community cringed in embarrassment.
In any event, you've got to be at least somewhat sympathetic toward Hughes. You know her main problem: she's been pushing the foreign policies of an administration that's now shatteringly disliked in almost every area of the world. It's become an almost impossibly hard sell and everyone in Washington knows it. Hughes is recognized as a good soldier even when she's dissed for partisan or journalistic reasons.
She would, however, surprise no one if she left tomorrow. But there's an opportunity for her in this election year to do in her current job what she does best: politics. She cannot, under law, propagandize the American public, but propaganda is precisely her job overseas. The most positive of the programs she has initiated at State is that emphasizing the "Diplomacy of Deeds" - actions by the United States that clearly show the world democracy at its best. And, excepting a possible bad-dream intrusion by the Supreme Court into the U.S. electoral system, nothing illustrates our democracy at work better than the sight of Americans of all walks of life gearing up to select their leaders at the polls.
Candor says it: Hughes could say the hell with it, and storm back to Texas tomorrow or quit to go to the aid of a hurting Republican presidential candidate. But if she does, it means months of vacancy for an important job in State, or a "pick anyone to fill the slot" rush appointment of a Republican PR hack. For my money, I'd rather have someone in the job who knows the turf and troubles than someone who comes in utterly clueless.
Time now to return to the notion that rescue teams from the PR establishment can snap our propaganda efforts back into shape. History doesn't indicate any remarkable improvements recommended by recent panels summoned to Washington for strategy sessions. One reason, perhaps, is that advice rendered in Washington by PR professionals is so often ground down or mauled out shape once it gets into the government "information" bureaucracy.
It's nice to know that, as Lee Levitt assured us, there are PR professionals in established American outposts overseas who might be hired to do the work government specialists should be doing. But in those hardline countries where suspicions are easily inflamed and innocents charged with espionage, that would be playing a game far too chancey. And writing propaganda that editors will accept is a technique that few seem really able to master.
At their core, the problems faced by the US in the international information field are those created by an overzealous Congress when the Cold War ended and the country's erratically capable PR machine, the US Information Agency, was disabled. Today, the stories of propaganda failures around the world bring to mind Casey Stengel's famous quote from the '60s:
"Can't anybody here play this game?"
Wes Pedersen is the principal at Wes Pedersen Communications and Public Relations. He spent 30 years in the US international information programs and has authored columns on U.S. and foreign affairs and books, including The Arts in America and Bounty From the Land.