On her final day at the White House as senior counselor to the president, Karen Hughes participated in an MSNBC.com chat about her job, her future, her history with George W. Bush. Hughes has been a Bush adviser since he began his political career and has been described as the most powerful woman to work in the White House. She answered readers’ questions over the phone from the White House and her remarks were transcribed by a typist. Chat producer Will Femia moderates.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Welcome, Karen Hughes.
Question from Marta J. Rivero: What was your day like at the White House?
MSNBC-Will Femia: Are you sitting in a blank empty office?
Karen Hughes: No, I’m surrounded by papers and books and mementos and… it’s hectic! We’re working on a big speech the president is giving tomorrow on corporate responsibility. I’ve talked with the president already this morning from Maine, he’s on his way back to Washington. I thanked my colleagues at senior staff this morning and gave them all a piece of unvarnished wood with the seal of the president embossed on it.
When I first went to work for then George Bush, before he was even elected governor, he told me that what he wanted from his staff was our unvarnished opinions. So when I was named counselor to the President, I promised to always give him my unvarnished opinion and I have had a block of unvarnished wood on my desk ever since, throughout my 18 months here at the White House.
So I had some unvarnished wood paperweights made for my colleagues on the senior staff and gave them out at our staff meeting this morning as a reminder of what we owe to our boss.
Question from R Pereira: Why now?
Karen Hughes: I wanted to move my family home this summer before the school year starts. This will give us time to move our furniture and belongings into our home and have everything pretty well organized and ready to go by the time my son starts back to school next month.
Question from Tom: Why does Bush prefer informal press conferences on short notice in the White House press room, rather than the Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon style of press conference in the East room of the White House in prime time? He doesn’t seem to enjoy jousting with press, as Clinton and Nixon did. Is that true?
Karen Hughes: No, in fact I think he engages more regularly with the press than perhaps any of his predecessors have. He frequently takes questions during daily events at the White House.
It’s an amusing system for what counts as a press conference. If you do a press conference with a foreign leader, somehow that doesn’t count as a press conference. He has done dozens of those, probably over a hundred I think, of those, and yet they somehow don’t seem to count as a press conference because a foreign leader was present even though most of the questions are usually directed to him.
He has done a formal East Room news conference. He did so the evening of October 11, and he does enjoy the informal give-and-take with the press in the White House press briefing room. He’s a humble person. He enjoys the give-and-take. Sometimes if he has a major news announcement, it would be appropriate for him to have a formal news conference as he did last October. But other times, if it’s more making himself available to the press, we think the informal atmosphere of the Press Room suits his style.
Question from Steve: Congratulations on your decision. As a transplanted native Texan, I understand your family’s desire to return. At some point in the future, would you consider running for office? Governor, State, or U.S. Legislature?
Question from yogi: Do you see a future role in public life?
Question from GoBush: Will you return to politics?
Question from spacecowboy: Karen, are you planning becoming invovled with any political offices when you return home or......
MSNBC-Will Femia: Very common on the question list.
Karen Hughes: I expect to continue to be involved in advising the president and have told him that I have one campaign left in me and I hope it’s his campaign for re-election in 2004. But I don’t anticipate seeking office myself. I guess you’re never supposed to say never, but I think I’m a little more private person than that. I have tremendous admiration for people who run for office and know the enormous dedication and time that it takes.
I remember seeing a friend who was a state legislator go to the grocery store and she basically couldn’t shop because so many of her constituents were stopping her to ask about issues. I was in great admiration at her patience, but I’m not sure I’m that patient.
So I don’t really envision that. I went to work for the president because I really believe in him and he’s a great leader. I’ve been honored to be a part of his team supporting him, and that’s the type of role that I see for myself.
Question from Laura D’Arcy: What will your role be in the 2002 gubernatorial campaign in Texas?
Question from Harvey Persson: Is it true that Ms. Hughes is leaving Washington to return to Texas at the request of President Bush to help shore up the failing campaign of current Republican Governor Rick Perry? A loss by Perry would be a huge embarrassment to the Bush Whitehouse. It seems to me that this is less a move to provide Ms. Hughes with more “family time” and more a move to save face for the current Administration.
Question from Patrick Crippen: What do you say to those cynics who doubt you’re leaving the White House being due to your family?
Karen Hughes: This decision is exactly what it appears to be. I made a decision that the place my family and I want to live, the place we want our son to spend his last 3 years at home before he goes to college, is Austin, Texas. My roots are there, my friends are there, I want him to have connections there.
I found when I was in high school that I sometimes didn’t talk to my own parents as much, but I would talk to my friends’ parents, and I want my son to have those same connections as he goes through these critical high school years.
I have found that the work-family balance is in many ways harder with a teenager than it was with a toddler. Toddlers drop everything when you come home from work and they’re excited to see and to play with you. And any parent of a teenager knows it’s not so easy to choose your times with a teenager. Teenagers tend to talk when they want to, not when you want them to.
So I think it’s important for my family that my schedule be more flexible and that I’m available to spend time with them.
That said, I will continue to work. I’m being retained by the Republican National Committee to continue to advice the President, but I think this schedule will give me more flexibility and more opportunities to do things like picking my son up from school, which I haven’t been able to do while I’ve worked here at the White House.
Regarding the campaigns, I will be a loud and proud supporter of the Republican ticket and of Governor Perry and of John Cornyn for the U.S. Senate, but I do not expect to be involved in any professional capacity in their campaigns. They have very capable people managing their campaigns and I’ve only got one campaign left in me and as I said I hope it’s the president’s re-election in 2004. They will have two more votes when my husband and I come home to Texas.
Question from Holly: I think you’re a fabulous person! I’m soooo happy you’re choosing to spend more time with your family. How did you react to the feminist criticism about your decision to leave? Best of luck to you!
MSNBC-Will Femia: I should mention that by far the most common comment in the question list was support for your decision to devote more time to your family. Could you expand your question to include your reaction to those folks as well?
Karen Hughes: Most people, women and men, have been very kind and very thoughtful about my decision. And I appreciate that very much. To the few critics who said that my decision was somehow a setback for women, I will say that women’s ability to make their own choices and to choose how to conduct and balance their career and family are what we all want. I think my decision says that women today have more choices than ever before. I can choose to do what’s right for my family by moving them home to Texas and continue to advise the president of the United States.
I think that’s wonderful and it was my choice. I think it’s right for my family and I think it’s wonderfully progressive on the part of the president who believes in a family friendly workplace and who, since I have worked for him, has always said if you’re a mom or dad, your most important job in life is to be a good mom or dad.
I have found far more people who stop me, and again I’ve been struck that it’s women and men, and told me that that they did something similar, that they turned down a promotion or didn’t move to a different city for a better job because they thought it was best for their children. If we choose to bring children in this world they’re our most precious responsibility. I’m confident that my decision is the right one for my family.
Question from Avery: President Bush has appointed more women than any other previous president to high positions in the White House. What effect do you think this has had on policy overall?
MSNBC-Will Femia: Does it make a difference?
Karen Hughes: I’m glad you noticed, first, because I don’t think the president gets enough credit for the fact we do have more women in senior positions in this administration than any administration in the history of our country. I think it brings a diversity of perspectives to the White House. I’ve always said I bring a mom’s perspective. I talk with my son’s friends’ parents on the sidelines at sporting events so hear what’s important to them. I go to the grocery store and notice when prices go up. I hear from people as they go about their lives how policies impact their lives, and I think that’s an important perspective.
Question from Marc Sedvick: Sometimes I hear about fighting among Bush advisers, between Card and Rove for example, or Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Powell. How much did you keep the peace and what will it be like once you’re gone?
Karen Hughes: I think that that is all incredibly exaggerated. We have here an incredible group of very intelligent and very dedicated people who are here for the right reasons. They’re here to serve the president and they’re here to serve the country. Obviously sometimes people have different opinions. But every meeting I’ve been in, I’ve heard those opinions treated with complete respect and admiration even if they differ.
The former Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Bob Bullock, used to say that if two people agree 100 percent of the time, one of them is not necessary. I think it’s important that the president, the most powerful person in the world, hear a diversity of opinion.
This is a very constructive and positive work environment because of the quality of people who are here. In previous White Houses, for example, I’ve understood that there is a rivalry between the president’s office and the vice president’s office, and that is absolutely not the case here. The vice president’s counselor Mary Matalin is one of my closest friends and I consult with her on almost every decision and she does the same with me.
So we have a real team. I think one of the things President Bush does best is build teams. And he encourages an atmosphere where people respect each other and trust each other and so we feel free to give him our honest opinions. And to disagree with each other and with him. And I think that’s healthy and constructive for the country.
Question from CA Charney: Best wishes to you and your family as you return to your home. It must have been a hard decision, but I’m sure you made the right one. I think you appear stronger as a woman — not weaker, as some might think — for favoring your child’s well-being and state of mind over anything else. That I think is the true test of motherhood. However, I am curious to know if the events of 9/11 and concern for your family and yourself contributed a bit to your decision to return to Texas. (Not that I’d blame you in the least) Good luck!
MSNBC-Will Femia: Did 9/11 make you re-examine your priorities?
Karen Hughes: No, I don’t think so. When I first came to Washington, I knew that if it did not work for my family that I would not stay here for a long period of time. I came because I believe in the president. I’m leaving because I think it’s the right thing for my family. But I’m going to continue to be back and forth to Washington and I’m going to continue to travel with the president to advise him.
So it’s not out of any concern for safety. Obviously all of us have had to deal with that. In my case, on September 11 itself when I came back after it was evacuated and was here for the rest of the day.
Question from Julie Atkins: Dear Karen, I respect your decision for your family to return to Texas, there is no other place like it. My questions is, with your wonderful talent in how things work and should work, how will you provide the president with further input from Texas?
Question from Mike Salsgiver: How will you be using technology to stay in touch with the president and your White House colleagues once you’re back in Texas? Do you use NetMeeting? E-mail? How do you see the routine working?
MSNBC-Will Femia: I confess, part of why I stuck that second one in there is because I’m curious to know how “Webby” the president is. Does he use Instant Message?
Question from sUnBuRn: Karen, How internet savvy is the president? Will keep in touch with him that way, now that you will be working long distance “out-of the office?”
Karen Hughes: Absolutely. I will rely on e-mail and my Blackberry and my computer as well as the phone line to keep me in regular touch.
I’ve already arranged for the press office to continue to send me, for example, press clippings and the president’s public statements as they do already to members of Congress and others so that I will be able to keep up with exactly what is being said and done. I anticipate that I’ll be in touch regularly by phone with our chief speech writer, our communications director, our press secretary and the president and I’ll continue to log onto to www.WhiteHouse.gov to keep current with what is happening in the West Wing.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Is the president mainly a phone guy?
Karen Hughes: Mainly by phone. In many ways what I’ll be doing from Texas won’t be that different from what I’m doing now. Obviously, I won’t be able to run down the stairs and be in the Oval Office. But frequently, for example this weekend, the president was in Maine and I was in Washington, a couple of weeks ago he was in Texas and I was in Washington — so frequently I’ve been in meetings where we’ve had four different people in four different places either by teleconference or by phone and that’s the way we do a lot of our work here. Because the president travels a great deal so a lot of times when I talk with the president it is by phone.
Question from Rob Williams: How did you handle the stress of the job? I can barely tolerate the stress of a retail position and would appreciate any tips from a woman who never appeared stressed but no doubt, spent many a day and night under stressful conditions.
Karen Hughes: I think that my ability to remain calm and to try to keep stress out of my life is rooted in my faith and in regular exercise. My minister in Texas preached a sermon once, the summer before the presidential campaign really heated up, in which he talked about all of us have pressure in our lives. It doesn’t matter what job you have, whether you’re counselor to the president or whether you’re an assistant working in an office. Any of us who work for other people — any of us I think, have pressure in life.
The minister talked about what you want to strive for is grace under pressure. My secret tip is I always say a littler prayer right before I go on television or have to do something like on September 11 where I briefed the country, where I ask for grace under pressure.
My other tip is exercise. I’ve put together an exercise group here at the White House, We exercise in a gym next door. We’ve discovered it’s almost as good for mental therapy as physical therapy because we laughed and had a great time together. So I would advise exercise with a group of friends is wonderful. We also found we got a lot of business done. We would talk about things and we’d laugh at how silly each other looked as we tried to do these exercises. But it was a great way to relieve stress.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Speaking of advice…
Question from Kory Marks: Karen, what would you say to me if I were going to be taking over your role as counselor to President Bush? What advice would you offer? What most amazed you about this job?
Karen Hughes: In terms of someone wanting advice to be counselor to the president, I think what the President has always valued most from me and from other members of our staff is our honest opinions.
When I first went to work for him, he said what he wanted most was our unvarnished opinions. He has to make a lot of decisions and he needs to be able to rely on people to give him their best judgment. Not to have a hidden agenda or be trying to steer him in one direction or another, but to give him their unvarnished, unfiltered best judgment. That’s what I think he has valued from me and from other senior members of our team.
MSNBC-Will Femia: I thought I read that Dan Bartlett will be taking over your position? Or was that just rumor?
Karen Hughes: Dan is the communications director. They’re not going to name another counselor, but Dan is the communications director and he will assume some of my management responsibilities for overseeing the communications operation.
Question from Concerned: What do think was your greatest achievement in the last 2 years? What was your greatest disappointment?
Question from Hughesfan: What are your plans now?
Karen Hughes: I guess the first thing I’m looking forward to doing is taking my float and relaxing in my pool, which I’ve really missed. I bought a house in Texas about two years ago for the first time in my life that had a pool — and I’ve been a swimmer all my life, I started competitive swimming in third grade. So I’m really looking forward to getting back to my pool, and to having some wonderful Mexican food in Texas.
I think my greatest thrill has really been every day to drive into the White House and realize what an enormous honor and privilege it is to serve this country.
I also remember a time when, early in the administration, when the band played “Hail to the Chief” and the president walked up on stage and I thought, ” That’s my friend and he’s the president!” and it was just an amazing… it was almost unfathomable.
So I will leave with wonderful memories, it’s been a real honor. I also have a renewed appreciation for the greatness of this country and the people. My fondest memories from the campaign were traveling around the country and meeting incredible people all over the country who are doing wonderful things to help their neighbors in need, and I have very fond memories of all of that.
MSNBC-Will Femia: Thank you very much Ms. Hughes for taking this time out with us on what I’m sure is a bittersweet day for you.
Karen Hughes: Thank you! It’s a great day. As the president says, I’m changing my address, I’m not leaving.
MSNBC-Will Femia: For more from Karen Hughes, be sure to check out the transcript of her interview with NBC’s Tom Brokaw.