CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
Karen Hughes was with George W. Bush for his first campaign in Texas and she will be with him for his last. This week her memoir goes on sale and Hughes jumps back into the public eye as she prepares to rejoin the president's small and fiercely loyal inner circle.
One of Mr. Bush's closest confidantes both politically and socially, Hughes resigned her position as White House communications director in the summer of 2002 to spend more time with her family in Texas. But she did not cede her influence with the president– she's been in daily contact with his reelection campaign by either phone or e-mail and has spoken to Mr. Bush several times weekly.
But on Aug. 15, she will rejoin President Bush on Air Force One, for more 18-hour days trying to define his campaign message one last time. She will counsel Mr. Bush in flight, while other top advisers remain at the White House and Washington campaign headquarters.
"There is a plane machine and a ground machine," explains Mary Matalin, a former White House official and a senior adviser to the Bush-Cheney campaign. "Having been a plane person in '92, you have to make a lot of audibles on the road."
Matalin emphasizes that it's these "audibles" that Hughes excels at, that make her "a key player," because she has the "ability to articulate what we are trying to convey in successful ways."
While on her six-week book tour, Hughes, 47, is also heavily involved in the planning of the Republican Convention in late August.
On Tuesday, when the White House reversed its position and decided to allow national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hughes was on the phone, advising the president and staff on how to recover the message. Mr. Bush spoke in the afternoon directly to the American people, on the advice of Hughes and other top officials.
Last week, Hughes advised the White House and the Bush campaign to go on the offensive against Richard Clarke, following his testimony and book critical of the administration's response to terrorist threats.
Recovering the message, managing the message, spinning the Washington speak, these are Karen Hughes' preoccupations. But for Hughes it is not necessarily spin. She admires the president and backs him fully. Her new book, "Ten Minutes From Normal," for which she received a $1 million advance, is both an autobiography that chronicles her time with Mr. Bush and an ardent defense of both the president's policies and the man himself.
"She even writes in his voice," Matalin added. "She even said when she began her own book that she was afraid she'd sound like him." Hughes also wrote the bulk of Mr. Bush's campaign biography, "A Charge to Keep."
Mr. Bush has called Hughes' role that of "strategic planning." In the past, she was often referred to as one-third of the president's "iron triangle," along with senior adviser and chief political strategist Karl Rove and, in the first half of Mr. Bush's presidency, campaign manager Joe Allbaugh, now FEMA director.
Today the triangle is larger. The president's inner circle includes Vice President Dick Cheney, Rice, as well as White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett and several others. Nevertheless, since Mr. Bush was governor of Texas and to this day, no one shapes policy more than Rove and no one has consistently shaped message more than Hughes.
"It is a healthy conflict between Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, but keep in mind they have worked together for a decade on behalf of George W. Bush and they know how to," said Ari Fleischer, former Bush White House spokesman. "Karl is more tactical. Karen is more communications. Karl will say, 'Mr. President, you have to go to St. Louis because we haven't been there and Missouri is a swing state.' Karen will say, 'This is what you need to say when you are in St. Louis.'"
Those closest to the president acknowledge that Rove and Hughes do disagree, that at times there is tension between them over the direction of the White House. But as Hughes returns, most emphasize that whatever conflict exists, she and Rove have worked for Mr. Bush too long for it to be a divisive issue.
"The whole is greater than the sum of the parts with those two," Matalin added. "I've known him for 20 years, and Bush is a very lean mean machine and if people aren't contributing to their max they are off the machine and those that are very loyal are long term."
For Hughes, who declined to be interviewed for this story, loyalty to Mr. Bush translated to a direct working relationship. Some Republicans feared her physical absence over the last two years depleted the administration of a high-ranking official who would challenge the president when necessary.
"You know how hard it is when somebody is in an elevated position to get somebody who tells you the truth. That becomes a problem; it becomes an echo chamber," said Christie Whitman, who resigned last May as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. "[Hughes] is close enough to the president that she gives unfiltered advice.
"When you've got somebody you really trust and in whom you've got a great deal of confidence, you go to them," continued Whitman, who served as governor of New Jersey before joining the Bush administration. "Karen has been a longtime friend and supporter of the president. Obviously when you are in a position like being president of the United States, you do value people who are going to give you an honest answer but are not going to talk out of school. You don't like reading about personal things you've said in the paper."