Big, bad John

Jim Fain

December 17, 1990|By Jim Fain

WASHINGTON — JOHN SUNUNU is that smarty-pants fat kid in the front row, remember? The one with his hand forever stretched toward heaven.

He's the perfect bulls eye for this town's dart board. Nasty, calculating, vengeful, born to be the designated hit man. He chews out aides, bullies whoever will let him, insults congressional icons, misleads reporters. He packages these little endearments in a rude arrogance based on the conviction he's smarter than other people. How did such a charmer get to be White House chief of staff?

For one thing, as governor of New Hampshire, he routed TV station managers out of their snow-bound weekend retreats and got eleventh-hour ads on the air smearing Sen. Bob Dole as a big taxer. Dole had no way of answering, which may have cost him the nomination. His ironic reward: He got to ramrod through the Senate the unpopular tax hikes Sununu and President Bush advocated when they got around to reversing themselves.

More to the point, Sununu is just what hungry-to-be-loved Bush wants. A cuddly boss needs a bad cop in the outer office. Sununu relishes the work. He proudly told the National Press lTC Club his tantrums are strategic weapons; he wields them to get Bush's good works through an antagonistic Congress.

Hill Republicans hooted. Because they have to sweep up after him, they find Sununu more of a trial than Democrats do.

In the budget battles, Republicans who stuck with Bush were horrified when Sununu told reporters (he thought anonymously) that Democrats could bring up taxes if they insisted, but Bush would shoot them down. It was a cheap shot that set the tone for months of wrangling.

Never underestimate the power of brutishness, however, in a town where most players are on the make. Despite private grumbling and poison-penning to anyone in the press who'll go off-record, the White House crowd cavil to their smug chief.

As a result, he causes real harm. Bush's foot-dragging on global warming is Sununu's doing, as is his fervor against abortion.

Since half of Washington dances attendance on the imperial court, palace guard interplay is big news here. Sununu's tag match with Secretaries Nicholas Brady of Treasury and Jack Kemp of HUD plays on the Homeric scale. Even House whip Newt Gingrich is taken seriously when he manages the not-so-difficult chore of offending the chief.

The permanent elite (lawyers, think-tank gurus, lobbyists, journalists) have a vested interest in the Oval Office. They enjoy movies and popcorn at the White House too much to criticize an incumbent until he's on his death bed. Like ancient seers reading newt (forgive the pun) entrails, they kibitz around until they find some unlucky staffer to blame for whatever goes wrong.

Poor Don Regan had to go, they sniffed, because of Iran-contra, one of the few Reagan sins for which he had no responsibility. Nancy, who shared their desire to get the Gipper off the hook, was happy to accommodate them.

In truth, staff serve at the Big Guy's whim. Whatever Sununu is and does is George Bush, not his churlish self, whether firing Cabinet officers or devising a vicious, racist campaign for '92. At least, that's where the buck stops out where the real folks dwell.

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