If Sununu is So Indispensable, Why Does He Travel at All?

June 30, 1991|By KAREN HOSLER | KAREN HOSLER,Karen Hosler is a reporter in The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Washington -- Among the little-noted ironies of the continuing hoo-ha over John H. Sununu's travel practices is that he took his famed limousine ride to New York the day President Bush gave a prime-time speech on domestic policy that was widely deemed to be a fiasco.

In defending his chief of staff later, Mr. Bush said he needed the chauffeured car because he was rewriting the speech along the way -- which explains a lot about the muddled message of the address. A ''tone poem'' on the president's philosophy of government was overlaid with a critique of the slow pace of Congress that suggested lawmakers should be more like delivery men handling hot pizza.

It got no live television coverage, and only the pizza line made the late news broadcast.

The timing of Mr. Sununu's trip to the Manhattan stamp auction that afternoon -- followed by a foray to New Jersey for a Republican fund-raiser that convened just about the time Mr. Bush was addressing a crowd of 2,000 on the White House South lawn -- raises the more troublesome question of why he travels at all if he is so needed in Washington.

Of Mr. Sununu's dozen or so predecessors in that post since the Eisenhower era, none is recalled as having such a steady gig on the rubber-chicken circuit, where Mr. Sununu spends the bulk of his non-official time outside Washington.

James A. Baker III and Kenneth Duberstein did no political travel at all during their days of serving President Reagan, and usually confined speaking engagements to events in Washington. Donald Regan and Howard Baker, who also took turns at chief of staff in the Reagan White House, got out a little more frequently but at nowhere near the rate of Mr. Sununu.

Similarly, during the Carter, Ford and Nixon years, the chiefs of staff stayed close by their respective presidents.

''Most chiefs of staff traveled only with their boss,'' said Stuart Eizenstat, former domestic-policy adviser for President Carter and a long-time student of the presidency. ''Their job is literally to run the staff, manage policy and keep the president informed about what's going on. Out-of-town travel just takes too much time away from the White House.''

Mr. Sununu's record of more than 80 journeys on his own during the first two and half years of the Bush administration is ''quite unusual,'' Mr. Eizenstat said.

Theories abound as to the reason for Mr. Sununu's itchy feet, including speculation that he is building chits with Republican groups with the idea that he may someday run for national political office himself.

But the more logical explanation, offered both by friends and detached observers, is that he simply enjoys it -- and until recently figured he could get away with it.

A three-term governor of New Hampshire, Mr. Sununu was well accustomed to the spotlight before George Bush came into his life. He also filled a very high-profile role in the 1988 Bush campaign, as chief attack dog against the Democratic contender Michael Dukakis, whose foibles as Massachusetts governor Mr. Sununu new well.

Though not a spellbinding orator, Mr. Sununu can be sharp-tongued and very entertaining. As White House chief of staff, he brings a new cachet to the role of after-dinner speaker that surely isn't lost on someone of his considerable ego. He can talk about what it's like on the inside, at the right hand of power. He can hint at new policy directions, and share personal anecdotes about George Bush and his experiences with other world leaders.

This is powerful stuff, said Edie Bamm, finance director of the Maine Republican Party, whose members Mr. Sununu entertained at a $65-a-plate fund-raising dinner recently. ''He really blew their socks off,'' she said.

The heavy use of military and corporate travel for which Mr. Sununu has been criticized was the result of his attempts to make these trips with a minimum loss of office time. He has often flown halfway across the country and back in the same day.

But it may be that Mr. Sununu's staff was often just as happy to have him gone.

Worse than his temper or rudeness or spitefulness is Mr. Sununu's tendency to manage by manipulation, say those who have worked for him. He does not deal straightforwardly with aides, but tells them only what he wants them to know -- or to think -- even if it is not accurate.

In the course of the current controversy, Mr. Sununu was revealed to have deliberately misled both the White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray, and the presidential press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, who are among the few independent power centers in the White House.

The legislative, communications and domestic-policy staffs have long ago been shut out of key decision-making councils. The White House political staff no longer exists. Only the foreign policy staff has been able to hold its own against him, partly because of the president's close involvement in the topic, but also because Mr. Sununu has no power over the vast bureaucracy of the National Security Council.

The chief of staff has now decided to stick closer to the White House to see if the storm now threatening him blows over. But if Mr. Sununu ever gets out on the hustings again, he may be in greater demand than ever because of the controversy, and he will probably have better stories to tell.

And his staff will likely be more than glad to be rid of him.

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