Richard Reeves

The Biggest Story in Washington

WASHINGTON -- People were looking at each other kind of funny around here on Tuesday. There was only one thing on local minds, more immediate than war, peace, terrorism and all that.

A top White House aide resigned, said she was quitting to spend more time with her family -- and they believed her! Believing Karen Hughes, the White House communications director, was what made the story so different. Around here and most everywhere else in the United States of Work, "spending more time with my family" is considered an admission of guilt. That's what all those Enron executives are saying. Up I-95, the quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, Elvis Grbac, had a bad year, a very bad year, and he quit, saying, of course, that he wanted to spend more ... well, you know.

The Washington Post was so agitated that it ran three stories on Hughes' announcement, beginning with a four-column spread across the top of Page One, and including a Web search of the phrase "to spend more time with my family." Most of what they found were things like a local police chief under investigation on various charges and a NASA official in some kind of budget dispute.

But people believe Hughes because she is a 45-year-old woman with a husband, a lawyer, and a son, a high school freshman, who want to go back to Texas. The play in local papers, of course, has a lot to do with how powerful Hughes was. In some ways, the former television reporter and former executive director of the Texas Republican Party was the real George Bush. She had the same strengths and weaknesses as he did -- particularly ignorance of foreign affairs -- but she was able to translate his Texas two-stepping into English and often was able to tell him what he was thinking just before he figured it out himself.

(I do not mean that last sentence as an insult to either of them. All presidents need someone like that because all presidents are expected to be able to instantaneously and accurately answer all questions on all subjects great and small -- and "That's a stupid question" is not considered a polite response.)

There is no doubt that Hughes' departure will change the Bush White House, even though she says she will be around a few days every couple of weeks. But that is not why people are so engaged with this story. 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.

More is expected of women than of bread-winning men. There has simply been no change in society's expectation that if a woman is running the country or curing cancer, she is still expected to do the dishes -- to say nothing of bearing and raising children. The impossible expectations made on American women are the reason there has been a great deal of discussion about a new book called "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children" by Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

Hewlett, among other things, shows that half of American professional women over 40 are childless -- and desperately unhappy about it. They were busy, busy, busy, under work pressure, pressure, pressure -- and one day they looked up and found they had been cheated of family and children. She is examining lives unexamined.

Hughes examined her life -- and now she is going to try to change it. She did what only a few hundred, or fewer, Americans, men or women, have ever done: played a critical role in the making of a president. There are not many people who think George W. Bush would have become governor of Texas and then president without her smarts and imposed discipline.

What will she do instead of running the country? Watch her friends' kids play soccer. That is an exaggeration, but when she was questioned about all this the other day, she said that on the president's last trip to Texas, she had driven to Austin to watch a game with a friend and kept thinking she was going to miss all this -- forever. You can't re-create growing up.

So she decided to get the hell out of Washington, let her own kid go back to his Texas school and see what happens next. More power to her.

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Richard Reeves