As Sherman Adams proved during the Eisenhower era, even the flintiest of New Englanders can succumb to the allure of the White House ego trip. The victim this time is the president's chief of staff, John Sununu, who has taken 77 flights on Air Force jets at a cost to the taxpayers of half a million dollars in pursuit of official and not-so-official matters.
The first thing to understand about this inside-the-beltway scandal is that someone (perhaps even someone in the White House) had to rat on Mr. Sununu, who proudly is not one of Washington's more lovable characters. Otherwise, how to explain the coincidence that U.S. News and World Report and the Washington Post happened to focus on Mr. Sununu's travel habits on the same weekend?
The second thing to understand is that Washington bigwigs tend to get big heads, what with all those people fawning over them and saying "yes" a lot more than they say "no." After a while, even the cuddly and humble start to have a very high opinion of their self-importance and their personal identity with the nation's destiny.
Until 1987, White House chiefs of staff and national security advisers apparently were not averse to flying commercial airlines, especially when they were on personal business or off to political fund-raising appearances. But to accommodate the wishes of then Secretary of State George Shultz and the needs of then chief of staff Howard Baker (who had to fly constantly to visit his sick wife in Tennessee), President Reagan quietly approved a new travel policy. Henceforth, those two presidential aides, for instant-communications purposes, were to fly White House Airways, otherwise known as the 89th Military Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base. These officials were advised to evaluate their use of military aircraft "on the basis of appearance or impropriety."
Which brings us back to Mr. Sununu, who was sadly deficient in watching "appearance or impropriety" in the way he commandeered Air Force C-20 jets for everything from dental appointments in Boston to skiing vacations in Colorado. He or Republican funding groups reimbursed the government for a third of these flights according to commercial rates. But the cost to the taxpayers was 7 1/2 times the $47,000 reimbursement for his personal and political trips.
Flying White House Airways may be a wise security-communications policy for the Oval Office crowd. But John Sununu at least should try to use a little "discretion" -- a word indiscreetly used this week by presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.