Sununu: inflating the White House chief of staff On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

April 25, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- PERHAPS THE most preposterous aspect of John Sununu's frequent flying on military jets, beyond the man's celebrated arrogance demonstrated anew, is the notion that a White House chief of staff requires such special treatment.

The job, after all, is not the presidency, although many lost sight RTC of that fact with some reason during the eight-year tenure of Ronald Reagan. First James Baker, then Donald Regan and Howard Baker all played inordinate roles in directing the affairs of government under a president who was only too happy to leave details to them. They in turn spent much time protecting Reagan from his worst impulses, which were frequent. It was important that they stay in constant touch with him, though not for the reasons now used to defend Sununu's extravagance with taxpayers' money.

But George Bush is a president who for better or worse not only makes his own decisions but also chooses to be importantly involved in the details of policy implementation. Under such a president, the White House chief of staff should be no more than a high-level functionary, as indeed those in most pre-Reagan administrations have been.

The notion that John Sununu, any more than such predecessors as Hamilton Jordan under Jimmy Carter and Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney under Gerald Ford, needs to be in instantaneous touch with the president is an exaggeration of the importance of the job. The idea that hugely expensive military jets have to ferry him around the country just so the president can reach him at a second's notice is a measure of how the chief of staff's role has been distorted during and since the Reagan years.

When Cheney succeeded Rumsfeld in the job in 1975 after having been his deputy, for example, he functioned almost anonymously, maintaining an exceedingly low profile while serving Ford effectively and well. He left the post not as a political star but as a lowly congressional candidate, upon election rising in the House Republican hierarchy on merit and hard work, not any celebrity, because he had little.

Two White House chiefs, H.R. Haldeman and Alexander Haig under Richard Nixon, gained reputations as strong men by virtue of serving in a White House gone beserk under a president fighting to stay in office, but they seldom if ever commanded the sort of treatment afforded Sununu and the Reagan White House chiefs.

For an administration that endlessly pillories Democrats in Congress as reckless spenders, allowing Sununu to use the military as his own private airline at incredible cost to the taxpayers is scandalous. Yet the Bush White House blithely has -- under news-media pressure -- released details of the trips as if their cost were peanuts and the justifications given acceptable.

The suggestion, for instance, that Sununu, a former governor of New Hampshire who still maintains his home there, had to fly to that state 27 times on business is ludicrous on its face. New Hampshire is a dandy place to go skiing or to run in a presidential primary. But it is hardly a center of presidential business -- at least not in non-presidential-election years.

For all the talk of a heightened sense of ethics in government growing out of Watergate and other scandals, Sununu -- a card-carrying fiscal conservative -- continues to show disdain for the public he supposedly serves. His extravagances take on particular dimensions when you think back to the transgressions and fate of Sherman Adams, another Republican governor of New Hampshire who ran Dwight D. Eisenhower's White House.

Adams, who like Sununu was known for not suffering fools gladly, was cashiered 33 years ago for accepting a vicuna coat, an oriental rug and some hotel lodgings from a New England textile manufacturer, Bernard Goldfine, who was having problems with two federal agencies and sought Adams' help. Adams was at least as important to Eisenhower as Sununu is to Bush, but Eisenhower let him go, persuaded by political advisers that keeping him would cost the Republican Party votes and congressional seats in the next election.

About the only political price Sununu seems likely to pay is the prospect of Democrats on Capitol Hill, long vexed by his superior and often insulting attitude toward them, exacting their pound of flesh from him. But his usefulness as a White House intermediary toward the Hill majority was already meager, and unless President Bush suffers an unexpected attack of scruples, his chief of staff is likely to continue in the job without notable contrition.

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