Washington -- When President Bush returned from a trip to Ohio the other day and reporters asked him about the future of his beleaguered chief of staff, John Sununu, he replied that voters "don't ask about the White House. They have different priorities out there." There's little reason to doubt it, but that doesn't mean that Sununu isn't a serious problem for him.
At a time Bush's unwillingness to offer any firm corrective actions on the stagnant economy is sending him sliding in the polls, the last thing he needs is a public impression of weakness. Yet that impression was indisputably conveyed by the spectacle of his own chief of staff publicly blaming him for the shudder that went through Wall Street when Bush, in Sununu's words, "ad-libbed" his call for a slash in credit-card rates.
Rule No. 1 in the manual for loyal White House chiefs of staff is that they take the heat for the president, not the other way around. You can imagine what would have happened to Sununu had he worked for Lyndon Johnson, for example, and dared to deflect the blame for a damaging statement on the imperial LBJ. He would have been out on his ear, yet all he got for protecting his own hide at Bush's expense was a thumbs-up sign from the boss when reporters asked about Sununu's fate.
The political health of John Sununu wouldn't matter much if President Bush was still riding high in the polls, with no appreciable challenge from the Democrats or from anyone within his own Republican Party. But with the 1992 presidential election year now only five weeks away, the Democrats honing their pitch to the economy-bashed middle class and rumbles of a challenge from the GOP right, Sununu's continued presence in the key White House job can be particularly damaging to the president.
Rightly or wrongly, the appearance of a confused White House, sending out contradictory signals first on the civil rights bill and then on a tax-cut proposal by House Republicans, raises questions about Bush's stubborn confidence in his chief of staff. Back in his home state of New Hampshire, Sununu no doubt could be an asset to Bush as a political strategist and arm-twister countering the expected challenge from right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan in the Feb. 18 primary. But sitting in Washington displaying his arrogance in various ways, Sununu is a reminder to voters of why they're fed up with all politicians.
For a time after Sununu's notorious abuse of his position in the use of government transportation, he kept a low profile but never acknowledged error. Little noticed recently, however, was a mention earlier this month in U.S. News and World Report of yet another Sununu flight on a government military plane to New York to speak at a political dinner.
A White House aide explained, according to the newsmagazine, that Sununu "took pains to get all the proper approvals and follow all the right procedures." He had to take the military jet at an estimated cost of $5,000, this aide said, because a commercial shuttle flight, at a round-trip cost of $284, wouldn't have provided "secure voice communications." Once again, Sununu was inflating his own importance on the taxpayers' nickel, and casting discredit on a boss whose patience with him seems limitless. This is the same George Bush who is forever whining that he is "sick and tired" of the Democratic Congress bucking him on legislation.
Sununu's role in the Bush reelection campaign also has the potential for internal friction. There has been little love lost
between him and pollster/strategist Bob Teeter, expected to be the chief operative of the campaign, with Sununu controlling the president's schedule from the White House. It's axiomatic that whoever has the major say on where Bush goes and when will either be in the driver's seat or grabbing for the steering wheel, and Sununu has never shown any hesitancy about doing the driving.
If Sununu had built up a storehouse of good will among important Republicans over the last three years, there likely would be a lot less steam in the current speculation about his future. Still, like Vice President Dan Quayle, Sununu has a constituency of one in the Oval Office, and as long as the only constituent who counts wants to keep him, it won't matter how he treats anybody -- including, apparently, George Bush.