Return of Hughes a Plus, But New Job a Puzzle In his latest Watching Washington column, NPR's Ron Elving wonders whether Karen Hughes' domestic political experience and success helping President Bush will translate well on the international stage.
NPR logo Return of Hughes a Plus, But New Job a Puzzle

Return of Hughes a Plus, But New Job a Puzzle

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Karen Hughes at the State Department, March 14, 2005. State Department hide caption

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State Department

It has to be good news for the Bush administration to have Karen Hughes coming back to work full time. But the work she is coming back to do has a lot of people scratching their heads.

Hughes was one of that storied trio of advisers who lifted George W. Bush from the baseball business to the Texas governorship — and then on to the White House. But it's hard to figure how Hughes is qualified for her new assignment: burnishing the American image abroad, with a special focus on raising respect in the Arab world for democracy in general and for the United States in particular.

Let's say you were designing an ideal candidate for this mission. You might begin with foreign policy training and overseas experience, especially in the Middle East. You would want someone with at least some facility in Arabic and passing familiarity with the religion and culture of Islam.

Hughes has none of these things. Born in Paris, when her father was in the Army, she grew up in Texas, where she went to high school. She majored in journalism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and worked for a Dallas TV station. Then she helped a Dallas businessman become chairman of the Texas Republican Party and segued into working for George W. Bush.

In a short space of time, Hughes earned the absolute trust of the future governor and president. It is said that Bush first asked Hughes if she would be with him and then made up his mind about running for the White House. Their relationship has only gotten tighter over the years. Together with her rapport with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, that relationship constitutes Hughes' credentials for her new job. That's a textbook definition of cronyism, and you can look it up.

Make no mistake, Hughes has been a miracle worker in the past. As Bush's most trusted confidante and adviser on communications, she did far more than smooth his rough edges and suppress his natural hostility toward news people.

She perfected a public persona for the man that was at times humble and at other moments cocksure. The Bush style, largely a Hughes production, can be by turns earnest and jocular, both irreverent about politics and religious about matters of faith.

The result was that Bush was able to counterpose himself effectively against Ann Richards, the incumbent governor whom he deposed in 1994, and Al Gore, the sitting vice president whose ascent to the presidency he frustrated in 2000.

Hughes served as Bush's first White House communications director, too, but she decided Washington was not good for her family and announced she was going back to Texas just 15 months into the president's first term.

She returned in an advisory capacity during the president's re-election campaign, helping once again to strike the tone the president himself would sound before the cameras and microphones. Cacheable as ever, the president then connected with his audience, hit his stride and had just enough to get him through Election Day.

After that, Hughes once again went back to Texas, content to stay in touch with her major client by telephone. But she has been missed. Her absence has been cited in some quarters as a reason the president's public campaign for his Social Security changes has stumbled out of the blocks.

So now she returns, carrying with her as always the aura of selfless confidence and the promise of success. If she were returning to her old portfolio at the White House, one could imagine her best days ahead of her. But she is not coming back to take over the road show for Social Security, or anything else related to her track record.

Yes, her mission is still communications. Yes, she is still selling something she believes in profoundly. But as the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, her task has been radically altered. Her target is no longer the American public — or that portion of it that she understands so intuitively. Her audience is no longer the one she has played to in her careers in TV news, public relations and campaign politics.

Officially, her new purview is the rest of the world, and shaping a message to assuage global resentment of the U.S. is a substantial order in itself. But more to the point, her special focus is to be that portion of the world that divides primarily between Sunni and Shia. That's a far cry from the battlefields of Austin.

Hughes' genius has been in defining and selling George Bush to ordinary Americans. That skill, so valuable in domestic politics, will be of little use in understanding her new charges — or in changing their hearts and minds.

The job she has inherited was created in the months after the invasion of Iraq spawned a firestorm of criticism in the Arab world. Its first occupant left after less than a year. The vacancy has remained unfilled since the summer of 2004. That fact alone led many to wonder how serious the administration was about the post. Presumably, filling that void at last with a player so valuable as Hughes is meant to answer that question.

Part of the Hughes' charm has been her own ability to be humble (a word she pronounces without the "h"). Five years ago she told The Washington Post she understood her role in the Bush campaign: "I know I don't know a lot," she [said]. "I know [Geoge W. Bush]. I know where he stands. I know his principles and I try to be a pretty effective communicator of what he believes. But I don't make any pretense that I know how to do this nationally."

Hughes learned to "do this" nationally, of course. True believers will say she can be successful internationally, as well. But Hughes is entering an arena here in which her critics, never mute, will now speak many languages. We are at a critical moment in the promotion of democracy abroad. The president has invested much of his personal standing in this theme, and there are signs of fruit in Lebanon, Egypt, the Palestinian enclaves and even the bloody streets of Iraq.

But the tide has not yet turned, either in the region's acceptance of American-style democracy or in global animus against the United States. Lebanon's course is far from clear, and the establishing of competitive elections in Egypt is unsure as well. Palestinian democracy is as fragile as the forming government in Baghdad. Every participant in these inchoate movements knows bad things can still happen.

This is a time for the United States to press its case with its best advocates, each in the role he or she can best play. What message does it send for President Bush to choose Hughes for this job at this moment? It says the president wants first a person of absolute loyalty who will carry his personal message and not that of any other American elite.

Overseas, it is likely to be taken in tandem with the message sent by naming John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton is renowned for regarding the U.N. with distrust and distaste, which has made him a hero among conservatives who have never liked the institution.

The world will likely view both Hughes and Bolton as signs that the latest American campaign of outreach is outreach strictly on Mr. Bush's terms.