'998 points of light and a couple of free ski weekends' On Politics Today

Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

May 14, 1991|By Jules Witcover and Jack W. Germond

WASHINGTON — BEFORE THE saga of White House chief of staff Joh Sununu's frequent flying at taxpayer expense passes into the footnotes of history, it may be worth pointing out one aspect that tells something of the mind-set of some of the folks who are running the country right now. They're all for volunteerism -- when it's somebody else's.

Among the flights Sununu took on military planes were two that carried him in the winters of 1990 and 1991 to New Hampshire, the state he once governed and still calls home. He went to attend the annual Christa McAuliffe Sabbatical Trust Fund Celebrity Ski Event, a charity affair in the name of the New Hampshire school teacher who perished in the Challenger space shuttle explosion. Sununu, like many New Hampshirites, is a skier.

In his accounting of more than 70 flights on military aircraft he had owned up to after news media disclosures, Sununu listed these two trips as "official," since he had been in on their planning and had spoken at lunches and dinners sponsored by the event each year since 1986, when the charity started.

In justifying the charging of these trips to the taxpayers, according to C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel assigned by President Bush to review Sununu's flights, the chief of staff said he had participated "in response to the president's call . . . to promote volunteer and charitable activities as Points of Light."

The reference was to Bush's pet boosterism of private volunteer activities that, in the old Ronald Reagan litany adopted by Bush, are supposed to be the real answer to nagging social problems rather than, as Reagan always liked to put it, "throwing taxpayers' money" at them.

The genesis was Bush's salute in his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention to America's volunteer organizations as "a brilliant diversity [that] spreads like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky."

Since shortly after assuming the Oval Office, Bush has pursued the theme, maintaining a "Points of Light" project in the White House's Office of National Service that screens public nominations for the honor, which often includes a brief meeting with the president. So far, more than 450 organizations doing volunteer work have been cited, one a day, six days a week.

Gray, in reporting back to Sununu on his defenses of the military-aircraft flights, summarized the former governor's position in regard to the celebrity ski weekends thus: "You believe therefore that your participation in and promotion of a Point of Light is in furtherance of your official duties."

NTC The White House counsel then administered a soft slap on Sununu's wrist: "While the president's Points of Light objectives are clearly furthered by your activities on behalf of the Christa McAuliffe organization, the participation of federal officials in charitable activities is usually considered a personal volunteer activity. It cannot be the case that any federal official's participation in a particular charitable activity of his choice is official solely because it is in furtherance of the president's Points of Light initiative."

Gray concluded by telling Sununu the two trips home "should be considered unofficial, and you should provide appropriate reimbursement." According to the White House, Sununu subsequently made a partial payback to the government for the 1990 trip and the New Hampshire charity paid for the 1991 trip.

While the annual ski event doubtless is a worthwhile affair, it has never been designated a Point of Light by the White House, nor has it ever been among the 150 nominations the White House receives weekly, according to one of the aides who handles them. But that is not really the point. John Sununu, the man advertised as having an IQ that goes through the roof, apparently didn't get it -- that his boss was calling for private sacrifice, not hypocrisy, in his program to encourage volunteerism.

Concerning two other trips to the ski resorts of Vail and Aspen, Colo., Sununu said he went to represent the administration at events staged by the skiing industry, and Gray bought his contention that the trips constituted "official" business. In these instances, Sununu didn't attempt to cast his own participation as any sort of volunteerism. But the charitable events in his own state were too convenient to pass up.

Maybe Bush should rename his program -- something like "Nine Hundred Ninety-Eight Points of Light and a Couple of Free Ski Weekends."

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