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CNN Access: Hughes: I'll be back

Karen Hughes said she left a piece of unvarnished wood to remind her colleagues to talk frankly with the president.
Karen Hughes said she left a piece of unvarnished wood to remind her colleagues to talk frankly with the president.  

Editor's Note: CNN Access is a regular feature on providing interviews with newsmakers from around the world.

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Karen Hughes turned in her title of "counselor to the president" Monday to return home to Texas with her family. But she said she would remain in close touch by telephone with the Oval Office. Hughes has been at George W. Bush's side since his first campaign for Texas governor. She is the first member of the president's inner circle to leave the White House team. Before she left her office, Hughes sat down for a chat with CNN's Senior Political Correspondent Candy Crowley.

CROWLEY: Karen, thanks for taking some time with "Inside Politics." So this is it.

HUGHES: Well, this is it for this phase. I go back to Texas, and I'm going to continue, as I told you all the day I made my announcement, I am going to continue to advise the president. I'm going to be on retainer with the Republican National Committee so that I can continue to advise the president and continue to travel back and forth to Washington, although a little less frequently. My family and I are looking forward to having a little more flexible, little more relaxed life in Austin, Texas.

CROWLEY: But it changes. You know, much has been made of what will change now for President Bush. I mean, you have been the one that has been with him since the beginning. You are the one that he relies on most. What changes for him day-to-day?

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HUGHES: Well, daily, obviously, I won't be able to run down the stairs and be in the Oval Office. I will be just a phone call away. I will travel up here, probably, every couple weeks. But I am going to continue to be very involved, and I would imagine on major speeches, major projects, if the president is going to be giving a major speech, I will probably come up to Washington and work on it. So I think, on the big things, it won't really be all that different.

CROWLEY: We can't let you leave your day-to-day job without asking you a couple policy questions about what the president has in mind, particularly ...

HUGHES: Before we go on to that, if I could ...

CROWLEY: Sure. Yes. Absolutely.

HUGHES: You mentioned about the perspective. I really do think that what I lose in the proximity of being here on a daily basis I will gain in some perspective.

CROWLEY: And what do you think they are saying out in the hinterlands now, because that's where politics are really made ...

HUGHES: Right.

CROWLEY: And that is where decisions are made, about this whole thing about corporate responsibility ...

HUGHES: I think they are mad as heck, and I think they should be. And I know President Bush is mad as heck. I remember standing outside the of Oval Office on -- in the days right after Enron collapsed, last December -- and him picking up a Texas newspaper and looking at it, and said, "This stinks."

You know, the captain is supposed to be the last person off a sinking ship, not the first. And so, I think the president is understandably unhappy at some of the horrible excesses and abuses that we are seeing in corporate America right now, and our administration is working on cracking down on that.

CROWLEY: Can you give us a hint as to what sort of proposals you think he can put out there that would be feasible to assess?

HUGHES: Well, there are a couple of things, Candy. I think there are some places where we can strengthen laws. There are some places where we can more aggressively enforce existing laws.

Unfortunately, six, seven, eight years ago, during sort of the high-flying times of the '90s, some of these abuses -- or apparently the seeds of some of these abuses -- were sewn and started growing up. And we are just hearing about them now. But these have been some time in the making, and the president is determined to clean it up.

CROWLEY: Is that how you approach this politically? It is sort of something that grew out of the Clinton administration excesses? Because the president is seen as vulnerable because of his ties to the corporate and big business, because the vice president ... came from Halliburton. There have been some questions about when the president sold off stock, that sort of thing. This is seen -- widely seen -- as a political problem for the president.

HUGHES: Well, first of all, I just disagree with that, and I think the people of the country do, as well. Both the president and the vice president are known as very ethical, honest, aboveboard, strong business people. And so, I think there is a strong sense in our administration that we know what is wrong. We are going to go after the people who are engaging in illegal or unethical practices, and we are going to clean it up.

CROWLEY: But is there a sense that you need to sort of say, Look, this happened in the excesses of the '90s, which is sort of code for Clinton administration?

HUGHES: No, it is just the fact. I mean, for example, this morning I noticed some people are talking about Chairman [Harvey] Pitt, who is doing a great job, and has enacted some tough new reforms at the SEC. He was approved unanimously by the Senate last August. Now some of those same senators are apparently raising questions. But he is doing a great job. He has been in office less than a year, yet some of the things he has investigated started many, many years ago. And as I said, we are the administration that is cleaning it up, and I think the American people clearly see that.

CROWLEY: Is the president inclined to get rid of Pitt, as we are seeing that [Senate Minority Leader Tom] Daschle and [Rep. Nancy] Pelosi would like?

HUGHES: Again, the president has great confidence in Harvey Pitt. He is doing a great job. He has enacted a series of very tough reforms.

CROWLEY: Last question. You leaving anything behind?

HUGHES: Oh, I gave some of my colleagues on the senior staff this morning a piece of unvarnished wood. When I first went to work for -- well, then he was -- I guess when I first went to work for him --he was George. It was before he was governor, before he was president. He told me that what he really valued most from his staff was their unvarnished opinions. And when I was named counselor to the president, I promised to always give him my unvarnished opinions.

And so a friend of mine sent me a block of unvarnished wood that sits on my desk. And so, I'm leaving behind some unvarnished wood to remind all of us that that is what he expects from us, and that is what the American people should expect from us too.

CROWLEY: And you are coming back anyway to remind ...

HUGHES: And I will be back and forth. I have already got my trips planned out of Crawford in August. So I will see you in Crawford in August.

CROWLEY: It's a deal. Thanks very much. Happy trails.

HUGHES: Thank you very much.




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