Bush's confidante quits for sake of family

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George Bush suffered a political blow yesterday when one of his closest advisers and the person one official described as "the most influential person" in his political life announced she was resigning to spend more time with her family.

Karen Hughes, 45, who has been a close confidant to Mr Bush since his days as Governor of Texas, said he would be leaving later this summer, though she would continue to advise him on long-term communication strategies.

"Later this summer, I'm going to be changing the way in which I serve the president. My husband and I have made a difficult, but we think right, decision to move our family home back to Texas," Mrs Hughes told reporters. "Our roots are there. I guess we're a little homesick."

Mrs Hughes, who has the title of counsellor, had been talking about leaving for several months and there was no indication yesterday of any other factors involved in her decision. Along with Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, Mrs Hughes is one of the most senior female officials in White House history and is considered a member of the President's 'kitchen cabinet'. With political adviser, Karl Rove, she was critical to Mr Bush's rise from a two-term Texas governor to the presidency. Mr Bush reportedly only decided to run for president one he had secured Mrs Hughes' agreement to work with him.

Mr Bush said: "She may be changing addresses, but she's not leaving my inner circle." The president said Mrs Hughes had broken the news to him last week, adding: "I said, 'Karen, I've always valued your advice' and she said, 'You'll have my advice.' So I said to myself as long as I have her advice, judgment and friendship, I support the move.

"This is Karen being Karen. She loves her family. She has always made it clear to me ever since I've known her that her husband and son come first in her life."

Though she rarely speaks before the cameras, Mrs Hughes has been instrumental in developing Mr Bush's public image and helping fine-tune his words. On September 11, as the President's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, was drafting Mr Bush's first response that was to have read 'This morning we were the victims of ?', Mr Hughes ordered an immediate  rewrite. "Wait a minute - we aren't the victims of anything," she told Mr Fleischer. "We may have been the targets, we may have been attacked, but we are not victims."

Mrs Hughes attends every White House meeting where major decisions are made. She reviews every statement he makes and travels with him to make sure pictures of his road trips match his messages. She says that she has worked with the president so long she can finish his sentences.

It appeared yesterday that Mrs Hughes had decided she had dealt with the demands of such a high-profile position for long enough. Friends said her husband was unhappy with Washington and regretted the loss of privacy and lack of time with his wife.

"I saw Karen last week and was kind of struck at the time - although I didn't realize it as a sign then - that she was talking about how much Robert and Jerry missed Texas," said Mark McKinnon, who ran Mr Bush's advertising operation during the presidential campaign.

Mrs Hughes said she had made the decision to leave the Bush team at this point because of a May 1 deadline to decide whether her 15-year-old son, Robert, would remain in Washington schools.

She said Mr Bush was not surprised by the move. "He accepted my decision and respected it,'' said Mrs Hughes.

Asked if her departure reflected the difficulty of juggling home and career for women, she called Mr Bush's willingness to let her go yet still advise him a "family friendly" decision. "This says that I can do what is right for my family and continue to serve the President in a key way," she added.

Mrs Hughes has worked for President Bush since his 1994 campaign for Texas governor. She served as director of communications for his 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial campaigns and was director of communications in the governor's office from 1995 until 1999, when she joined his presidential campaign. She also worked as the Texas press coordinator for the 1984 campaign for former President Ronald Reagan and his vice-president, George Bush Snr.