So when she chose to leave the White House and return to her native Texas in 2002, it took many people by surprise.
In her new book, "Ten Minutes From Normal," she explains her life-changing decision and reflects on her continuing relationship with the president.
The story behind the title, Hughes tells The Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith, has to do with a trip to Illinois.
She says, "We were on a train, and it was right after the convention, and they're chaotic and people and parties. We get on this train, and it's very odd, because we're slowly rolling, clickity-clack, seeing cows outside the window. As we came into Illinois, the conductor said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, we are ten minutes from Normal.' I turned to my colleagues at the time and said, 'If I write a book, that's what I'll title it,' because that's how I felt. I was a normal person, finding myself running with my boss for president and becoming the president."
In her book, Hughes writes about the sense of wanting to be a normal person and the ambivalence of being so close to the seat of power and then trying to maintain a normal life.
"It's a struggle we all face, whether we work in the White House or a restaurant," she says. "I've been surprised how many men come up to me and tell me their stories. They turned down a promotion because it would have required them to move to a different city at a time bad for their family. It has resonance. I think it may be the foremost domestic issues of our time: How do you balance career and family?"
"Ten Minutes From Normal," Hughes says, is about setting priorities. In her case, she notes, her faith helped her decide how to allocate her time.
She says, "I found it's even harder as the parent of a teenager than it was a parent of a toddler, because when your kids are little, you come home and they run and want to play with you. Every teenager knows that doesn't happen. You have to be there when they want to talk, which is increasingly rare."
She recalls a minister in church on a Sunday, saying, "You've got the freedom. You've got the choice. Make the right choice."
She notes, "It's hard, especially when you're ...in a very responsible place. I felt responsible to the president, and I worked for him a long time."
And, in a way, she admits her book sounds guilty for leaving her post. She explains, "I remember the president saying to me one day, 'Don't be guilty' after I made the decision. I felt he has the hardest job in the world, and I'm his friend. I couldn't imagine doing anything that would make it one iota harder. From the beginning, I recount an e-mail I sent to a friend where I talked about how difficult it was to balance the demands of my drive with my family. I had always driven my son to school. I didn't even see him when I worked at the White House. I felt like I was increasingly more irrelevant in his life and I still had more parenting to do."
So she made the decision to go home and be with her family. In no way, she says, did she mean to retire and, she points out, she promised the president she would continue to stay involved. That is a promise she has kept.
Last weekend, Harry Smith points out, he got the sense Hughes had something to do with the decision about having Condoleezza Rice appear before the Sept. 11 commission.
About that, Hughes says, "That may give me too much credit. I did agree with the decision. I was asked what I thought about it and I agreed if it were possible to come up with a way to balance that important principle -- I see the struggle the White House has. These aren't easy issues. We all took an oath to defend the Constitution. I thought if they could come up with a way to balance the important constitutional principle with allowing Dr. Rice to testify publicly, that I wanted it the American people to hear from her, and the president wants the American people to know the facts. That wasn't coming through in all the process debate."
In an interview with Barbara Walters, Hughes said that many of the things Richard Clarke said were just not true. And on The Early Show, she claimed he gave a distorted picture.
She says, "I mention him once in my book. He was sent to my office the week after Sept. 11 to brief me about Afghanistan. Not Iraq, which he says we were focused on, but Afghanistan. The president had told Condoleezza Rice and me the night of Sunday, Sept. 16, that he was focused on al Qaeda and Afghanistan. So Condi sent Richard Clarke to my office.
"But what's most distressing to me about the picture he portrayed is that it left Americans with a sense of misplaced responsibility, as if somebody in the government, or the Bush or Clinton administrations, were somehow responsible. I think we have to look at this and say, 'Had anyone been able to put together the pieces before, of course they would have done so.' And only al Qaeda is responsible. They declared war on us. We need to remember that."
The book portrays the president in a very positive light and, in a way, Smith notes, it gives the impression Hughes would never sacrifice as much as she has for another politician.
"I explain him plainly the way I see him," Hughes says, "I wouldn't do this for anyone else. I don't view this as a game. I didn't spend my career angling to find someone who was going to run for president so I could work at the White House. In fact, I didn't particularly want to do any of that. I went to work for someone I believed in. Then he decided to run for president. It was his dream, not mine. I was glad to support him in it. That's really my story."
Read an excerpt from "Ten Minutes From Normal":
The train felt odd, slow and lethargic, a marked contrast to the hyperactivity of the just-finished Republican National Convention. A convention is a riot of balloons, speeches, people and parties, but suddenly, the noise had stopped; someone had slammed on the brakes and we were on a slow roll across the Midwest, seeing the occasional cow.
The convention had been a great success, the moment we had all been working toward, the moment we nominated my boss as the Republican candidate for President of the United States of America: a coronation, a culmination, yet like so many big events in a presidential campaign, oddly unsatisfying.
The planning and organizing that had led to that moment had been years in the making.
The past several months had been devoted almost entirely to building toward the convention, writing the speech, organizing the themes, planning every scripted moment of national television coverage. But then, before we were able to truly celebrate or absorb it all, it was over, and we were back on the trail, or in this case, the train track, always on to the next thing.
A presidential campaign is relentless. You win a straw poll, or a primary, or a debate, or the daily news headline, and wake up to people already talking and asking about the next one. You win in Iowa, lose in New Hampshire, get back on track in South Carolina, only to lose in Michigan three days later, and wonder yet again, "are we missing something?" But you're on a plane to California where there's a debate coming up, then flying cross country for next week's critical primary in Virginia. Once you start, the only way to stop is to lose, and that, of course, is not the way you want to get off of this train.
The reporters on board were all restless. Through long stretches of rural Pennsylvania and across Ohio, their cell phones didn't work much of the time. "Al Gore could have dropped out of the race and we wouldn't even know it," one complained to me. "We should be so lucky," I replied. The biggest excitement came when a woman mooned the train, causing a great stir among all on board and endless speculation about what, exactly, she was trying to say with her show.
By the second day, the sleepy routine had begun to feel a little more natural: long hours of rocking along the track, punctuated by brief rallies in small towns and waves off the back to small groups of people who gathered at crossings, bringing their children to witness a little piece of American political history. We were approaching a town in Illinois, when the conductor came over the loudspeaker and proudly announced: "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are ten minutes from normal; ten minutes from normal."
"If I ever write a book, that's going to be the title," I told my colleagues in the staff car. "10 minutes from normal is exactly how I feel about this whole bizarre experience." I've always considered myself a very normal person who had, at least until recently, a very normal life, with a normal family and normal friends, except, of course, I have a boss and friend who became the President. And while that is often thrilling and even sometimes still surprising, it is most definitely not normal.
At times, it still strikes me, when I'm standing backstage and the band plays Hail to the Chief (which doesn't happen that often because the President is quite humble, and tries to balance the grandeur and stature of the office with his desire not to inflate his own sense of self-importance), and he walks on stage and I am amazed: that is the President of the United States, and I know him, and he knows me.
He knows my husband and son. We have had dinners together; I've even cooked some of them, and so has he. I know how he takes his coffee. He knows that I am tall, not big, because we have had that conversation. Women who are 5 feet ten and a half and wear size 12 shoes do not like to be called big. We prefer the more stately, tall. My friend Condi Rice says it's like sweating. Southern women do not sweat, especially if you grew up, as she did, in Birmingham, Alabama. Southern women only perspire. "Tall people in back," the President says to me during the group photograph at last year's senior staff Christmas dinner, winking to show he got it, he remembers.
I have a very normal family: a teenage son who thinks that I am totally annoying, especially when I ask intrusive questions like "how was your day?" or even try to talk to him when he gets in the car after school because he's tired (tired of talking, I wonder? How is that possible since he doesn't?) and a husband who puts up with us all and only occasionally gets irritated when I ask him for the third time today whether he loves me and then refuse to be satisfied when he tells me yes, but it's hard. "It's not that hard," I protest. "Not TOO hard," he replies, agreeably, which of course is not the answer I want to hear.
I have a grown daughter (for sake of complete accuracy, I should say a stepdaughter, but my husband had custody of her and we married when she was nine. She lived with us and I nursed her through chicken pox, and creating categories of children in a family always struck me as wrong, so I always call her my daughter) and a granddaughter, who has inherited a strong will and streak of independence from all sides of our family.
We have a cat, Griffey, the only cat our family has ever had who actually comes when he is called and would be an almost perfect pet, which my husband defines as not requiring much in the way of service, except for a terrible habit of choosing to throw up on the carpet instead of the tile floor, even if the tile floor is closer and he has to go to another room in mid-cough to find some soft, lovely, hard-to-clean carpet on which to deposit his most recent hairball. I also live with an exuberant golden retriever, a rambunctious and bouncy and eager dog who never has learned to keep all four feet on the ground or her tongue in and nose out of unwelcome places. She's quite loveable, if a bit enthusiastic. That's what I think, at least.
My husband and the dog have a strained relationship. I would like to think it dates to the time I let the dog spend the night in the house because it was cold outside in Washington and the first night she was perfect, but the second night she chewed up a blue ballpoint ink pen on the light white-beige carpet, but it's actually much deeper than that. Jerry ended up taking care of the last dog, a ditzy cocker spaniel named Fritzi, who was sweet but kind of stupid and while I was fond of her, I never really bonded in the way that you bond with a real dog, a large and intelligent one. (Your dog gets in the cat litter, how intelligent is that? Jerry asks. Notice the pronoun.
Not "our" dog, as in the family pet, but "your" dog, as in all mine.) Jerry used to laugh when the media described me as a control freak or the person who "controlled" the White House message. Anyone who thinks she's in control ought to come and meet our animals, he would say.
Writing about the pets is oddly personal, and I realize this story will involve the people close to me more than perhaps I realized, or wanted. "I'm going to have to write about you in my book," I inform my husband, in between commercials for ER, one of the few shows we watch on television. "I didn't agree to that," he protests, ever the lawyer. "You agreed I should write this book," I answer. "I can't write a book about my life without writing about our family, it wouldn't be true, it wouldn't be honest," I protest. He looks unconvinced. 'This is supposed to be a book about your political life, your life at the White House," he says. "No, remember, it's a book about a lot of things, how a normal person like me ended up working at the White House, what it was like. It's not a typical political gossip book," I sputter. "This book is about life and family and faith and important things, and I can't write about what is important without writing about you and Robert." "You can mention us, but keep it brief," he replies.
Reprinted from Ten Minutes from Normal by Karen Hughes by permission of Viking, a member of Penguin Group USA Inc. Copyright (c) 2004, Karen Hughes. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.