Washington -- BACK WHEN he was accused, as vice president, of being excessively supportive of President Ronald Reagan, George Bush often defended himself by observing that "loyalty is not a character flaw." As president, Bush has pointedly admired what others have seen as fawning on the part of his own vice president, Dan Quayle, and himself has been conspicuously loyal to Quayle and other subordinates.
Never has this trait of sticking by members of his team been more obvious than in Bush's continued support of his chief of staff, John Sununu, in the face of repeated violations of Bush's own commitment to the public that his administration would avoid even the appearances of impropriety.
Sununu's latest gambit of taking a chauffeur-driven White House limousine to New York to buy some rare stamps, after having his wings clipped on his use of military jets, amounted to a thumb to the nose to American taxpayers, and an embarrassment to Bush. But Bush's reaction remained one of loyal support, with only the mildest hint of admonition to his subordinate.
In this behavior, however, Bush is hardly an exception to most of his recent predecessors in the White House. Ever since President Harry Truman elevated an old Missouri National Guard buddy to general's rank and made him his White House military (( aide, presidents have been paying subordinates with loyalty and have been getting paid back with politically embarrassing conduct.
The Truman aide, Harry Vaughan, used his position to help shady characters get government contracts and he accepted gifts from defense contractors that brought much criticism to the Truman administration. Yet his old friend stuck by him, even when he accepted a medal from Argentinian dictator Juan Peron. "No S.O.B. is going to tell me who to have on my staff or in my cabinet," a loyal Truman said.
Truman's successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was similarly embarrassed by his White House chief of state, Sherman Adams, who like Sununu had been a governor of New Hampshire and a key political ally in obtaining the presidency. Adams accepted a vicuna coat, an Oriental rug and other amenities from a textile manufacturer named Bernard Goldfine who sought his help in problems he was having with federal agencies. Eisenhower held onto Adams as long as he could but finally agreed to ask him to leave when he was convinced by GOP political advisers that Adams' behavior would hurt the party in the next congressional elections.
Lyndon Johnson, as Senate majority leader and later as president, tolerated shady dealings by his protege, Bobby Baker, for a long time until Baker became the subject of a Senate investigation and eventually was jailed for income-tax evasion, theft, fraud and conspiracy.
Richard Nixon as president had a small army of important aides who committed a host of misdeeds, from the Watergate break-in and cover-up to abuses of FBI and Internal Revenue Service power. Nixon stood by them for a lengthy period as well -- in considerable part, no doubt, because they were acting on his instructions or to protect him -- before throwing such major figures as his White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and his domestic policy chief, John Enrlichmann, over the side. Nixon also abided his vice president, Spiro Agnew, well into the investigation by his own Justice Department that finally led to Agnew's resignation and nolo contendere plea on one count of tax evasion.
Jimmy Carter suffered the embarrassment of a White House chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, given to crude remarks and behavior toward high government officials, and kept him at his side throughout his term. When his budget director and close friend, Bert Lance, was forced to resign after charges of improper banking practices, Carter still stuck by him, saying "nothing I have heard or read has shaken my belief in Bert's ability or his integrity."
When, however, it came to subordinates who misbehaved and brought discredit to a president, those of Ronald Reagan -- from Oliver North and John Poindexter on down -- broke all records. Yet Reagan, as always, declined to acknowledge wrongdoing and escaped personal political damage throughout his eight-year tenure.
Whether George Bush will be similarly Teflon-coated in light of Sununu's continued, arrogant abuses of his position is an open question. But Bush himself, in tolerating Sununu's outrageous conduct, is showing no signs of backing off his view that "loyalty is not a character flaw."