Washington -- Bill Gray's departure from politics for admirable reasons, and the preposterous reasons John Sununu gives for lusting after the perquisites of power, intimate the end of an era.
Congressman Gray of Philadelphia, third-ranking Democratic leader in the House and the highest ranking black in House history, might have become speaker, in time. But there are, he thinks, better uses of his time. He is resigning to become head of the United Negro College Fund.
Washington -- or, more precisely, the city's predominantly white political and media sliver -- is uncomprehending and aghast. Many liberals are particularly dismayed by this instance of self-determination by a black man.
Mr. Gray's decision, which gestated for two years, involves a mix of motives. True, he can make more money as a private citizen. Mr. Gray also knows that not just political empowerment but social development -- particularly enlargement of the black middle class -- is the crucial challenge for the black community. In this, Congress can be at most marginally important.
Given the surge of their enrollments -- up 17 percent in four years, twice the college average nationally -- the 41 colleges served by the United Negro College Fund may educate close to one million students in the next decade. They range from needy inner-city and rural blacks, who for cultural reasons do not test well but who are college material, to upper-middle-class blacks (the Huxtable children) seeking an intensely black experience.
Mr. Gray, a preacher who values pastoral duties above political ones, is a former teacher whose father was president of two black colleges. His career change, as an affirmation of fresh starts and of education, is quintessentially American.
Mr. Sununu's comportment expresses a dark side of recent American experience, the grotesque inflation of pretentiousness by presi- dential appendages. Absurd notions of urgent haste, cock-eyed obsessions with secrecy, delusions of indispensability -- these have been pathologies of presidential aides during the era of the national-security state in a hair-trigger world. They are ingredients in Mr. Sununu's insistence on grand travel arrangements even to political fund-raisers, stamp auctions, dentists and ski slopes.
So extreme is his horror of merely commercial aviation, his government chauffeur had to cart him on a five-hour journey to a Manhattan stamp auction. So desperate was he to avoid the hourly flights between Chicago and Washington, he violated rules and misled White House lawyers in his frantic solicitation of private jets from the wealthy.
As his behavior has become buffoonish, his explanations have become Napoleonic, symptoms of elephantiasis of the ego, to which small people orbiting around presidents are prone. Sununu, says Mr. Sununu, must be constantly able to be in instant voice communication with the president. Gosh. Does he try to schedule his Boston dental appointments in the likely intervals between nuclear attacks? Does the dentist dare put those little cotton tubes in Mr. Sununu's mouth? What if the president called? How fortunate the Republic was to survive 20 decades before the policy of instant communication was dreamed up to flatter its adherents.
But perhaps we may hope that the Sununu mentality will go the way of the Berlin Wall. Maybe the government will get off its tiptoes.
Campaigning in St. Louis for the League of Nations in September 1919, Woodrow Wilson warned of habits of mind that might be produced by perpetual high tensions among nations. We would, said Wilson, think of the president not merely as important temporary counselor but as commander-in-chief. Information and plans would be secreted. (In 1989, the year the Wall fell, the U.S. government, according to itself, created 6,796,501 new secrets.) the world Wilson warned against, ''We must be physically ready for anything to come.''
Mr. Sununu, tootling along the New Jersey Turnpike, or zipping about in mooched jets, with his papers soggy with secrets and safe from the prying eyes of passengers, sure has been ready for anything.
We cannot restore the world in which President Jefferson said he had not heard from his ambassador in Spain for three years and if he did not hear for another year, he would write to him. We are a far piece from even the world of 60 years ago, when presidents elected in November were not inaugurated until March and Congress did not convene until the following December -- 13 months after being elected.
But the 1990s are ripe for restoration of a republican -- small ''r'' -- sense of proportion regarding government. Conservatives, especially, should note that Mr. Gray, who is leaving, has it, and Mr. Sununu, who is staying, does not.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.