Families need a friend in the White House

May 02, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I've got to hand it to Karen Hughes. I always knew that she was good at her job. I just didn't know she was this good.

Talk about spin control. The way she's handled her resignation over the past couple weeks is enough to win the 5-foot-10 woman with size 12 shoes a role as prima ballerina.

First she framed her exit as a matter of geography. "I want to take my family back home to Texas," she said, carefully phrasing the family decision as if they were "a little homesick" for a state rather than for each other.

Then she added a sound bite, "I've always prided myself that this is a family-friendly White House, and I think this is a family-friendly decision." Few people noted the contradiction: If this is such a family-friendly White House, how come it's a family- friendly decision to leave it?

Finally, she framed her "career move" as progress for the gender. "I hope it's an example that women have more options." Is this collision of family and work the prize in the Cracker Jack box of women's new lives?

Up to now, "family-friendly" photo ops of the Bush administration have abounded. There was Ms. Hughes home-schooling her teen-age son on the campaign plane. There she was taking a "midweek moment," actually going home at 5:30 (!) on Wednesdays to be with him.

Moms were listed and enlisted. Sometimes, the White House was portrayed as a workplace day care center where Mary Matalin's kids come to play with makeup.

In the end, of course, not even this super-spin-controller could keep everyone on (her) message. The announcement inevitably got folded into the endless debate over whether women "can have it all" and what the heck "all" is anyway. There was universal agreement (present company included) that the first thing "killer jobs" kill is a balanced life. And nobody blames the boss.

It's no surprise that Ms. Hughes was doing her masterful best to leave the White House with its image intact, especially among the Baseball Mom constituency. But what was missing was the link between the personal and the public. Between Karen Hughes' life as a workaday mom and as a Bush loyalist. Between the White House as an employer and as a maker of public policy.

In some ways, Ms. Hughes' departure is a real loss for a lot of women. This woman who wrote the president's autobiography is as close to him as anyone in the administration. It's widely said that she was the one who got Afghan women on the Bush agenda.

Judith Lichtman of the National Partnership for Women and Families says appreciatively, if tepidly, "I saw her as a force for whatever small bits of attention the White House paid to the concerns of women and families."

But consider what has not happened on his and her watch. There have been few public policies coming out of this "family- friendly" White House to help the millions of other working families for whom the "killer job" is any job. These are parents who live and work at a much less-rarefied level.

Just a few facts. This is an administration that wants to raise the hourly work requirement for single mothers coming off welfare to 40 hours a week. Without adding any money for child care.

This is an administration that bailed out airlines but didn't cover the health care of the laid-off employees. Maybe Ms. Hughes and her family are eligible for COBRA, but a flight attendant isn't.

And while we're at it, this is the administration that opposes a measly 24-hour expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act so that parents can go to school conferences or doctor's appointments.

We've expended an awful lot of attention and energy on women, especially moms, at or near the top. Part of the assumption is that when they got there, they'd change policies and attitudes for the rest of us. We worry, conversely, that when they quit, the room at the top is once again a parent-free zone.

But the policies in this White House are based on the notion that every family can and should solve these work-family stresses on its own. Shouldn't the parents, including those whose high-flying jobs have led to a bout of homesickness, identify with women who cannot exchange a high-stress job for one that will -- you can put money on it -- offer more money and shorter hours? Shouldn't we make it easier for them?

With all due respect to Karen Hughes' formidable spin skills, I have another exit strategy. Why not spend these last weeks in the mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue adding another chapter to the boss' autobiography, taking on family-friendly policies for the women who don't have Ms. Hughes' choices?

That sort of policy pirouette would make a truly graceful exit.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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