WASHINGTON -- Once upon a time, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu flew commercial flights like the rest of us.
Then, in one of those seemingly minor episodes that change lives, the White House was unable to reach Mr. Sununu one day in 1989 as he flew from Washington to New Hampshire, with a layover in Newark. From then on, the White House told him, please stay in touch as you travel.
Thus began Mr. Sununu's short, slippery journey to ignominy in his new role as The Indispensable Man, first by riding convenient but costly military planes and government limousines to ski trips and a stamp auction, then by hitching rides on corporate jets to political fund-raisers.
As criticism erupted, Mr. Sununu apparently ignored his own best advice on how to deal with a burgeoning problem: "It's always easier to deal with things when they're still little acorns, before they grow into big oaks," he said in 1987, while governor of New Hampshire.
Now, facing a whole grove of those oaks, Mr. Sununu has in a sense arrived back where he started. Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater declared Monday that Mr. Sununu no longer has to keep in touch during his travels and may even fly commercial airlines if he likes. He is again dispensable.
The travails over Mr. Sununu's travels illustrate the tricky and widely varying standards of ethics that prevail in Washington. They also show how such troublesome "acorns" can grow out of control when handled with indifference rather than immediate contrition.
G. Calvin Mackenzie, a government professor at Colby College in Maine and a consultant to the Treasury Department on ethical matters, said Mr. Sununu's behavior adds up like this on an ethics score card: "If there has been any violation here, it is of White House rules, and it is probably only a technical infraction. The principal problem in all of Sununu's travels is appearance."
And nowhere was the appearance worse than in Mr. Sununu's first round of flights -- on government-paid military aircraft -- plus his ride to New York in a government limousine to a stamp auction, Mr. Mackenzie said.
"Think of yourself as a GS-14 civil servant deep in the gray corridors of government, wondering if you can take your government car to pick up your daughter at the airport," he said. HTC "And then you read about John Sununu flying a government plane out to Vail for a ski trip."
Mr. Sununu's behavior brought unfavorable publicity and a rebuke from the White House, but a lower-level bureaucrat would have faced near-catastrophic repercussions. During a recent ethics session with Treasury Department employees, Mr. Mackenzie learned of a Secret Service agent who was suspended for six weeks without pay for using a government car to take his son, a college student, out to dinner and then back to the dormitory, even though the agent had been in town on official duties.
If Mr. Sununu were in Congress, his travels on military planes would hardly have rated a mention other than an eventual vague footnote in the Congressional Record. Members of Congress routinely ride in military planes all over the world. Though most such trips are ostensibly for congressional business, leisure time and sightseeing are often on the agenda as well.
When Mr. Sununu moved on to the use of private jets for trips to five Republican political events last month and this month, he was on fairly safe ethical ground, Mr. Mackenzie said. Both federal campaign finance laws and the federal ethics statute passed in 1989 recognize the need for allowing members of the executive branch sometimes to accept free rides from corporate interests.
In addition, White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray determined before each trip that the provider of the plane was not seeking any particular favors from the White House at the time, although in one case -- a trip to Chicago -- Mr. Sununu supplied Mr. Gray with incorrect and incomplete information.
Also in that case, Mr. Sununu solicited the ride on his own, rather than letting Republican Party officials handle arrangements, as was the case with the other four trips. But, as it turned out, the owners of the plane on the Chicago trip were seeking government help, even though the businessman who arranged and paid for the trip was not.
All of which left Mr. Sununu seemingly facing an ethical mess and a possible violation of the law. But Mr. Sununu apparently ended up in the clear, legally speaking, for two reasons: First, he solicited the ride from the disinterested party. Second, the law forbidding solicitation of gifts from interested parties does not regard travel as a gift.
So, once again, Mr. Sununu's most glaring problem ended up being appearances.
But, as in the earlier example, most lower-level civil servants would have courted disaster by acting similarly. Their rules for accepting free travel are far more stringent, Mr. Mackenzie said.
Members of Congress, meanwhile, would have been considered exemplary for bothering to check at all for a possible conflict of interest. Many lawmakers routinely accept free rides and weekend trips from the same businesses and interests that seek favors from congressional committees they serve on.
As for Mr. Sununu's future travels, he may well continue flying on corporate planes as long as they are approved in advance by Mr. Gray and as long as Mr. Sununu provides correct and complete information and, preferably, doesn't solicit the ride himself. Doing so would not violate any White House rules or federal laws.
But Mr. Mackenzie said that, for the sake of appearances, he might want to follow the suggestion implicit in Monday's statement by Mr. Fitzwater, who mentioned that Mr. Sununu may fly commercial airlines whenever he wants.