WASHINGTON - Karen Hughes, the most influential woman ever to serve on a White House staff, announced yesterday that she will leave her job as a senior adviser to President Bush this summer to return to her Texas roots and to spend more time with her family.
Hughes, whose title is counselor to the president, will become the first member of Bush's inner circle of Texas advisers to step down from the 15-month-old administration.
Those who have followed Bush's political rise noted that Hughes has been an intensely loyal and trusted friend who has written many of his speeches since his days as Texas governor and has helped mold his image. Her sway resulted in large part from her instinctive grasp of his style and strengths.
Over the years, the president developed such close rapport with Hughes that he frequently turned to her first in a crisis or when in need of counsel on nearly any topic. That comfort level, aides said, makes Hughes in some ways irreplaceable.
Bush, who has often spoken about the need for people to make their families their top priority, said of Hughes:
"Her husband and son will be happier in Texas, and she had put her family ahead of her service to my government, and I am extremely grateful for that approach and that priority."
But Bush said he would continue to rely on Hughes for guidance after she returns to Texas, and she said she would continue to offer it.
"Karen Hughes will be changing her address, but she will still be in my inner circle," he said. "I value her advice, I have her advice. And I value her friendship, and I will have her friendship."
Appearing unexpectedly in the White House briefing room, Hughes said that she and her husband, Jerry, had "made a difficult, but we think, right decision to move our family home to Texas."
"Our roots are there," she said. "My son is going into his final three years of high school before he goes off to college, and we want him to have his roots in Texas, as well. I've always prided myself that this is a family-friendly White House, and I think this is a family-friendly decision."
Hughes, who has been at Bush's side for eight years since his first run for governor, took on a powerful but undefined job at the White House.
She held official duties, such as overseeing the White House press office and communications and speech-writing offices. But more tellingly, she was a confidante to the president and one of the few people he relied upon for one-on-one advice on how to get his message out on domestic and foreign policy issues.
Aides said White House communications director Dan Bartlett, 30, who also served Bush as governor, would probably see his duties expand to fill some of the void.
Hughes said in an interview last night that even after she returns to Texas she would fly to Washington to see Bush "several days every couple of weeks."
She said that she and the president are "still working out" the details but that she will "still be involved."
But one White House official acknowledged that the dynamic in the West Wing would probably change once the president is no longer able to call Hughes into his office at a moment's notice.
"She is not going to be involved as she is now - there is no way," the official said. "Karen and the president have such a unique and special relationship. She knows him so well."
Friends and co-workers said Washington was never a good fit for Hughes' family. Mark McKinnon, a media consultant who worked on Bush's presidential campaign, said Hughes has appeared distressed recently and confided that her husband and son missed Texas, including their church in Austin and her son's baseball league.
"They just didn't have the kind of community here that they have in Austin," he said.
A friend of Hughes' suggested that her son "just wants to go home."
One former Bush aide who has known Hughes and her family for years said her son, Robert, apparently found it hard to adjust to life at a Washington prep school where most of the students had been breathing "the same high-blown, rarefied air since kindergarten."
"I suspect they put their kid in the wrong school," the former aide said.
Well before Bush was elected president, Hughes occasionally discussed how she thought she might be uncomfortable living in Washington.
One colleague said she has been talking about the possibility of leaving the White House for several months. Hughes told the president of her decision last week and informed most of her staff yesterday morning.
In a place where 16-hour days and six-day weeks are common, Hughes asked for and received some flexibility in her schedule to spend more time with her family. She tried to leave the White House before 6 p.m. at least once a week to be home with her son.
Hughes said she and her husband, a lawyer, wanted Robert to spend the rest of his high school years in Texas.
"We have three more years at home with him," she said. "We realized we were missing seeing our friends, and our friends' children grow up."