PR adviser Hughes bails out on her pal President Bush
November 8, 2007
Like rats deserting a sinking ship, the Texas loyalists are bailing out on their lame-duck president more than a year before his second term comes to a merciful end. The latest Texan to desert President Bush is his good friend and top PR adviser Karen Hughes.
Hughes followed former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, ex-White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, former press secretaries Scott McLellan and Tony Snow and several other longtime friends and associates over the side of the president’s sinking ship. It’s going to be a long, cold winter for the Bush administration, and things won’t get any better for the Republicans as next November’s national election approaches.
Hughes submitted her resignation early this month as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, becoming the third woman to fail in that near-impossible job, following in the footsteps of her unfortunate predecessors, Madison Avenue advertising executive Charlotte Beers and former ambassador (and GOP loyalist) Margaret Tutwiler, who resigned to go for the money on Wall Street.
Beers is occasionally remembered for attempting to sell the U.S. – the main job of our public diplomats – the way she once sold hairspray and Uncle Ben’s rice. It didn’t work. In her most egregious error, she bought advertising on foreign TV stations, thereby undercutting American embassy public affairs officers, who obtain free media placement by cultivating local journalists and opinion leaders. As a former PAO in three countries, I cringed when Beers launched her counterproductive advertising campaign.
Tutwiler occupied the public diplomacy chair at State for a few months before giving way to Hughes, who took over two years ago with high hopes for turning around America’s tarnished international image with particular attention to the war-torn Middle East. But as I’ve written many times, our PR is only as good (or as bad) as our foreign policies, and there’s simply no way to put a happy face on President Bush’s Iraq fiasco despite his repeated claims of “progress,” whatever that means.
Not even Hughes, whose message magic helped carry Bush to state and national electoral victories, could turn the Iraqi sow’s ear into a silk purse as the U.S. image plummeted right along with the president’s popularity, which hovers around 30 percent.
After getting off to a slow start with a clumsy trip to the Middle East, she eventually chalked-up some rather modest accomplishments in the public diplomacy post. New York Times editorial writers were correct (for a change) when they noted that Hughes “realized the limits of her ability to win America friends when the administration’s policies … were creating new enemies every minute and even souring allies,” like Great Britain. So, according to the Times, “she turned her attention to winning bigger budgets, creating regional hubs to respond to the Arab media, and cultural exchanges like summer camps for Arab children to learn English,” worthwhile but low-profile objectives.
“Hughes’ inability to solve anti-Americanism was less a reflection on her talents than on the impossibility of her job,” opined the Los Angeles Times as it praised her for securing a much-needed public diplomacy seat at the administration’s foreign policy table.
That may have been her most lasting accomplishment because as President Kennedy’s well-respected U.S. Information Agency Director Edward R. Murrow once said, “If we’re going to be in on the crash landings, we should be in on the take-offs.” The legendary broadcast journalist was right about the need for public diplomats to be at the policy table, but the Clinton administration took a big step backward in 1999 by merging the semi-autonomous information agency, which specialized in public diplomacy, with the sprawling and highly bureaucratic State Department.
The State-information agency merger, engineered by Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and ex-North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, represented a major setback for our nation’s public diplomacy program. They’ve never recovered despite the best efforts of Hughes and others, as State bureaucrats turn a mostly blind eye to public diplomacy except when our policies go terribly wrong, and then it’s too late to pick up the pieces. Frankly, Albright was in over her head and Helms was an obstructionist disaster as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
So I think it’s fair to say that America’s worldwide public diplomacy is in disarray as President Bush’s friend and fellow Texan, Karen Hughes, takes leave of her key post at the State Department.
She tried and failed to burnish the U.S. image around the world. As the L.A. Times noted, “Public diplomacy is people-driven, but people do not make diplomacy. Governments do.” That’s very true and it’s why Hughes’ successor should be a full participant in the Bush administration’s flawed policy-making process until a new president takes office in January 2009. We can only hope that the next president has a better understanding of the public-diplomacy-policy link than did President Bush and his top advisers.
• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, was a public diplomacy specialist during his 28-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service.