Does Karen Hughes Protest Too Much?

When a man in politics or business says he's resigning to spend more time with his family it's taken as a euphemism for "I'm being pushed out," "I've had it up to here," or, as in the case of all those Enron execs, "the Feds are about to investigate." But when White House counselor Karen Hughes said as much, the same news media who have been manipulated by Hughes for months took her statement at face value.

The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller commented her own (and her colleagues') identification with her: "In a rare moment for Washington, Ms. Hughes' explanation for her resignation, to spend more time with her family, particularly her teenage son, was taken not as the usual spin, but instead as a painful truth about the difficulties women face in balancing family and work."

Hughes' decision to return to Austin has been alternately viewed as "noble," "courageous" and "sad." Most importantly, it had meaning. Hughes' flight from high office spoke to all of us, suggested Robin Toner: "Suddenly there was another Rorschach test for a culture striving mightily to come to grips with mothers and work." Canonizing Hughes, journalists pushed the unoriginal work of Sylvia Ann Hewlett, whose "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children" argues that high-achieving women end up shocked and miserable, with a big corner office and no kids.

All this boo-hooing for Hughes was "the Biggest Story in Washington," wrote presidential biographer Richard Reeves. "It makes all of us question our own lives and priorities, and it quite effectively dramatizes the difficulty of women having anything like a normal home and family life in the American workplace."

What we should be questioning is all this sappy coverage. Bush's anti-communications director may have had the last laugh after all.

For one thing, there's no evidence that Hughes is leaving work — she's just leaving Washington. As Matthew Martin in the Los Angeles Times points out: "The conclusion that she's making a big sacrifice in leaving the White House to head home for Texas with her family is way off base." Miller points out that "for nearly a decade, Hughes has given George Bush 120 percent for a government salary that usually didn't top $120,000. Now she'll be in a situation that thousands of equally-accomplished (though lower-profile) working mothers only dream of — the ability to work half-time for 10 times the pay. Just do the math."

With a retainer from the Republican National Committee so she can continue to mind baby Bush (as both she and the President have said will be the case), some top-dollar speaking engagements, and a few hand-outs from corporations who want the world's Most Connected Woman on their board. "(C)onservatively, we're closing in on $1 million a year," writes Miller. Add a book contract from Rupert Murdoch's Harper Collins and we're looking at twice that.

If the Hughes story has meaning for working women, it's that a woman who holds a high office is not necessarily good for families.

The media weren't only taken in by the talk about her children. (The son who she says misses his Austin school is the same son she stuck on the campaign plane when he was 10.) The media gulped down her tale whole: "Throughout my career I have tried to prioritize my family while I have a career," Hughes told the press corps when she made her resignation known.

"I've prided myself that this is a family-friendly White House and I think this is a family friendly decision." Casting the Bush administration as family friendly is Hughes-league spin indeed.

But one only need go so far as the record conveniently compiled by the AFL-CIO to see a different slant. To celebrate her arrival in office, the White House closed down the Office on Women's Initiatives and Outreach. They then set out to eliminate the ten regional offices of the Department of Labor's Women's Bureau — the only federal agency specifically mandated to represent the needs of working women.

The White House has proposed a welfare reform plan that requires poor parents to work even longer than at present to remain eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, even as it eliminates vocational training and educational activities that had before been counted towards the work requirement.

And just last month the Bush administration unveiled a new workplace "safety policy" — really an anti-policy that will be especially bad for women in "female-ghetto" jobs.

Bush's business-friendly program doesn't call for any mandatory steps by industry and relies on voluntary actions by companies to reduce injuries from repetitive-motion jobs (such as sewing, nursing, writing and packing poultry.)

Policy like this is about as family-friendly as Hughes is saintly. It was she, after all, who slicked it up for consumption by the working public. The well-paid media mavens who relate to Hughes may be having crises-de-coeur over her choices, but there will be no crying for Karen Hughes in the places where most women work.

Journalist Laura Flanders is the host of Working Assets Radio with Laura Flanders and author of "Real Majority, Media Minority: The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting." You can contact her at laura@lauraflanders.com.

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