Officials wonder which Sununu foe spilled the beans

April 26, 1991|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Disclosure this week of highly sensitive records detailing John H. Sununu's frequent-flier mileage at taxpayer expense has inspired an insider's game of whodunit aimed at guessing which of the White House chief of staff's enemies leaked the documents to the press.

Such is Mr. Sununu's popularity in Washington that nearly everyone is a suspect.

Some speculate about the junior Republican senator Mr. Sununu publicly dismissed as powerless. Others mention the GOP campaign consultant Mr. Sununu got fired from a congressional job. Also prominently named is a House Republican leader who became persona non grata at the White House when he ran afoul of the chief of staff last fall.

Democratic lawmakers or their staff assistants pose a likely choice for partisan reasons.

But many suspect, given that two differentnews organizations obtained for publication last Sunday Pentagon flight records that normally are very tightly held, that it was an inside job engineered by someone Mr. Sununu has alienated within the Bush administration.

"It wasn't Democrats, I can tell you that," said Representative Bob Wise, D-W.Va., chairman of a Government Operations subcommittee, who has been trying since last fall to get similar records ofmilitary flights taken by other White House personnel and says he is having "a devil of a time."

"This was internal, and probably within the White House," Mr. Wise said of the leak. "But that's Sununu's problem."

Indeed, most of Mr. Sununu's problems as he weathered the military flight flap this week have stemmed from the ill will he has created with an arrogant, sometimes abusive manner rather than the gravity of his purported offense.

"I think if he were a nice, quiet guy, most of this would have blown over," said Bonnie Newman, a former senior White House official who says she had to talk Mr. Sununu into using the military planes in the first place. "I'm concerned now that the policy is going to be sacrificed because of the personality involved."

Defense of Mr. Sununu from the White House and GOP ranks has been weak, while the widespread glee at his discomfort has barely been contained. As news accounts documented ski outings and trips to the dentist largely at taxpayer expense, the chief of staff was spared a joyful piling on by congressional Democrats only because so many of them are also vulnerable to suggestions that they fly too much on the government tab, aides confided.

"This whole thing is really about his attitude," said a Republican congressional source. "Everybody feels it couldn't happen to a nicer guy."

The initial reports based on Pentagon flight records revealed that Mr. Sununu had used costly Air Force planes for dozens of trips last year, including many that seemed to be primarily political or personal.

The White House first contended that Mr. Sununu was required to use the planes under a 1987 directive that called commercial aircraft inadequate because of the need for tight security and speedy communication in an emergency, then later described use of military planes as optional.

A third explanation held, once again, that the policy was mandatory.

The chief of staff chose not to explain his position personally.

On Monday, President Bush ordered Mr. Sununu to release his own set of travel logs for the entire 27 months of his tenure, detailing the purpose of each trip and the total of fTC reimbursements provided for those deemed to be political and personal. The records came through on Tuesday, with no word from Mr. Sununu.

However, Representative Bob McEwen, R-Ohio, who said on the House floor that Mr. Sununu was the victim of "the cheap shot of the week," got a spot on ABC television's "Nightline" that night because he was the only public official who rose to the chief of staff's defense.

Meanwhile, the Democrats just had fun with it.

Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, D-Mass., whose family has alsohad its share of notoriety, proposed that Congress enact legislation to buy Mr. Sununu round-trip, first-class commercial tickets for all future trips, "so he could save taxpayers millions and still be able to ride in style."

By Wednesday, Mr. Bush moved to cut off the controversy by finally defending his chief of staff -- but also announcing a review of the 1987 policy to determine if there is a "perception problem."

Mr. Sununu's position in the White House remains secure, by all accounts, but Mr. Bush was said to be unhappy with the reflection cast on an administration that he has promised will be above reproach.

Admirers as well as critics of Mr. Sununu argue that he might have taken some of the sting out of the issue earlier if he hadn't refused to provide his side of the story.

According to Mrs. Newman, the chief of staff resisted using the Air Force planes when he first took office with Mr. Bush in January 1989, despite urging from White House military aides and the Secret Service.

"I discussed it with Sununu when I learned of the policy, but he paid no attention to me," said Mrs. Newman, who served as director of White House administration.

After a month or so on the job, Mrs. Newman recalled, "There was an occasion when the president wanted to talk to Sununu and we couldn't find him" because he was flying commercially between Washington and his New Hampshire home with a layover in Newark.

The documents released this week suggest that the chief of staff quickly became accustomed to the practice and probably now "needs to slow down a little bit," said his former aide.

Even if the policy is ultimately upheld, Mr. Sununu knows that there won't be many tears shed for his ordeal.

"Anybody with a warm personality like mine has go to through these," he quipped.

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