Lightning rod for trouble

June 28, 1991|By Carl P. Leubsdorf

WHEN Harry S. Truman was president, he presided at the daily staff meetings.

His successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, decided to have a White House chief of staff. And as federal power has become concentrated in the White House, it's become one of the most powerful posts in government.

Still, it's a staff job, the primary task of which was once described as "keeping the trash of government away from the president's desk."

At the same time, its status is so lofty that the people attracted by its power and authority can easily develop what the late Jack Bell called "red carpet virus" in his 1960 book on the presidency, "The Splendid Misery."

"This is the miasma that attacks men when they work close to the sources of great power, move in exciting circles and become celebrities accustomed to all of the extra-fare attentions that are paid to the great," wrote Bell, longtime chief political correspondent of the Associated Press.

Bell was explaining the downfall of the first White House chief of staff, Sherman Adams. He quit after disclosure that he had accepted gifts, including a $700 vicuna coat, from a Boston industrialist seeking favorable treatment from the government.

Three decades later, Bell's words still seem appropriate in considering the case of John H. Sununu, who has clearly gotten to like the world of private jets and government limousines, regardless of whether they are the only available means of travel.

Indeed, of the 13 people who have held the job since 1953, Sununu is the fifth to get himself into hot water of one sort or another. Most, like the abrasive and combative Bush aide, had laid the basis for trouble by their previous actions.

Four chiefs of staff -- Adams, H.R. Haldeman, Donald T. Regan and Sununu -- had sufficiently antagonized other officials with their imperious ways that they had a shortage of supporters when they got into trouble.

The fifth, Hamilton Jordan, produced a similar reaction by insulting some of his party's principal figures and behaving in a way that many thought unsuitable for a senior White House aide before taking on the job.

The result was that each was ripe for a fall when he misstepped in ways ranging from the seemingly trivial -- Sununu's use of a military plane to visit his dentist and a limousine to attend a stamp auction -- to the criminal -- Haldeman's misdeeds in seeking to cover up the Watergate scandal.

Adams, like Sununu a former New Hampshire governor, used a rigid manner and a streak of Yankee morality in dispensing patronage and handling other domestic business for Eisenhower. It undercut his position when he engaged in the kind of behavior he had always decried.

Haldeman, who ruled Richard M. Nixon's White House with an iron hand, was one of several of that ill-fated president's men who came to grief in the unsuccessful effort to contain the scandal stemming from a bungled effort to bug the Democratic National Committee offices.

Both Adams and Haldeman operated primarily behind the scenes. So did Jordan, though his embarrassments, such as a much-publicized spitting incident in a Washington bar, often occurred in public.

Indeed, some of the most effective chiefs of staff rarely performed in public, such as Dick Cheney in the Ford administration and James A. Baker III in Ronald Reagan's first term.

In recent years, however, chiefs of staff have become increasingly public figures. Regan, the most politically inept chief of staff of recent times, was also the most aggressive in thrusting himself into the forefront.

He was forced out after he mishandled the most difficult moment of his troubled two-year tenure, the 1986 Iran-contra affair.

Sununu has been both a principal public spokesman for President Bush and his chief behind-the-scenes domestic and political operative.

Like Regan, who antagonized many prominent Republican lawmakers before he entered the White House, Sununu has tangled with virtually every top Republican inside and outside the administration.

That's why his troubles have attracted so little public support from fellow Republicans and why, even inside the White House, it's hard to count many people likely to urge Bush to keep him.

His job seems safe for now. But the history of troubled aides is that a way is usually found for them to move on, even if an immediate controversy doesn't sink them.

So it would surprise few people in this town if on a quiet Friday in August, Bush decides that Sununu could serve him better in his re-election campaign or elsewhere.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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