Et tu, Sununu?

William Safire

June 21, 1991|By William Safire

WASHINGTON — SAY WHAT you like about Jimmy Carter, but grant him instinctive good judgment about the American voter's distaste for royalism. He ostentatiously carried his own garment bag.

John Sununu, to whom George Bush has delegated more power than anyone, does not understand that Americans despise big-shotism in public servants. On the contrary, he seems driven to call attention to his inflated sense of indispensability.

He had already been reproved by the president, and ridiculed by the media, for using Air Force jets to fly to ski vacations and dentist visits. (Apparently no qualified dentists practice in D.C.) Awaiting later exposure were the dates of his meager recompense to the nation for a tiny portion of the expenses -- largely after, not before, his sustained ripoff came under scrutiny.

That would have caused any politician with a modicum of judgment to proceed with care, thereby to avoid providing the president's opponents with ammunition to help them revive the sleaze issue.

Not the Eddie Rickenbacker of Air Sununu. He actively solicited corporate jet travel for political jaunts, forcing local Republicans into the same tawdry dodge of "repaying" a tiny fraction of the real cost of the travel.

He would have the public believe that the lobbyist for Beneficial Corp. jet, who catered to his privacy needs during a recent flight, never discussed any matter beneficial to Beneficial.

Worst of all, the successor to Sherman Adams in more ways than one commandeered a White House limousine to take him on a five-hour drive to a stamp auction in New York City.

The impoverished New Hampshireman forked over $5,000 for three stamps used on letters mailed to Europe aboard the Graf Zeppelin, showing anew his troubling fixation on aviation.

Why the long limo ride? In Captain Queegian response to sharp (( interrogation by ABC's Sam Donaldson, the White House chief of staff explained that his round-the-clock job meant "I have to be able to communicate, to work on sensitive papers, to coordinate the White House activities, even while I'm traveling."

Then couldn't he have attended the stamp auction by telephone, as so many bidders do? Or flown a commercial shuttle, which the president could reach by radio in some imagined emergency about quotas or the death penalty?

Or taken the speedy Amtrak Metroliner, which has a telephone pTC on it -- and even a Club Car, if Sununu finds repugnant the proximity of noisome commoners?

Anybody as vitally important as John Sununu thinks he is to the management of the Bush White House -- nay, to the survival of the United States as we know it -- should be encased in a glass bubble inside a Clean Room under the cone of silence.

This is what happens when a workaholic is grimly determined to play. He is a walking embarrassment; the president's men refer to him as "the zombie down the hall." If Barbara Bush were Nancy Reagan, the chief of staff would already have suffered resignation by a thousand leaks.

Why? Does he not have a lightning-fast mind? (Yes, proving that brilliance and stupidity can coexist.) Does the White House counsel not uphold the legality of his improprieties? (Yes, which is causing Boyden Gray to corrupt his ethics task.)

John Sununu should be dumped because he lacks a presidential aide's most essential attribute: political judgment. Ethical breaches, if acknowledged, might be forgiven; but sustained obtuseness, bringing deserved ridicule on the administration, imperils the success of a presidency.

He is widely perceived to be a pompous ass not because "self-styled experts" are anti-travel, or because Bush opponents are trying to besmear the president through him, but because he has repeatedly demonstrated arrogant asininity.

And he has neither the judgment nor the loyalty to see how his supposed round-the-clock indispensability and his indefatigable perksmanship undermine the president and make a laughingstock of the Republican Party.

Jimmy Carter used to trot up the steps to Air Force One, wave, and hand his garment bag to an aide -- who kept the secret that the bag was empty. But better that hypocrisy of humility than this persistence in pomposity.

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