Sununu's battle to stay on reportedly hastened his departure

December 05, 1991|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- John H. Sununu's resignation Tuesday as White House chief of staff was announced earlier than planned because Mr. Sununu fought his dismissal so vigorously, Republican sources said yesterday.

President Bush had intended to pair the news of Mr. Sununu's departure with the unveiling of his re-election campaign staff so the ousted aide would not be alone in the spotlight, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But the president decided to speed up the timetable after Mr. Sununu started seeking favorable public reviews of his job performance from Republican congressional leaders, they said.

"Sununu did not go quietly into the night," said one insider. "He went screaming, hollering, fussing and fighting every inch of the way. He made it as hard for George Bush as he possibly could."

Accounts of Mr. Sununu's unsuccessful struggle to save his job emerged yesterday as the president was making the final consultations before naming a replacement, an announcement that was expected to come today.

Speculation continued to focus heavily on Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner, 53, a Chicago attorney and longtime Bush friend, whose easygoing nature provides a stark contrast to the often-irascible Mr. Sununu.

Mr. Skinner was considered almost certain to be given either the chief of staff post or the top job in the president's re-election campaign -- or perhaps both. Other prospective campaign officials, whose assignments were also considered likely to be announced today, include:

* Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher Sr., who may carry the mostly ceremonial title of campaign chairman.

* Robert M. Teeter, a Bush pollster, whose job probably will involve strategic planning.

* Frederic V. Malek, a Republican businessman who was forced to withdraw from Mr. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign following disclosures that he carried out a 1971 order from then-President Richard M. Nixon to compile a list of Jews working in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mr. Malek, who has been working since to rebuild his ties with the Jewish community, may be involved in campaign logistics.

Among the last details still to be worked out yesterday, sources said, was the designation of a political operative, whose role in the campaign would be similar to that of the late Lee Atwater four years ago -- providing Mr. Bush with gut-instinct political guidance.

President Bush was believed to be eager to make the announcements before he leaves tomorrow for Hawaii to take part in ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Despite the heavy odds being put on Mr. Skinner's appointment, many White House officials and outside Bush advisers cautioned that the president delights in keeping secrets and upsetting the traditional wisdom in Washington.

The first order of business for the new chief of staff will be to help devise a strategy for jolting the stagnant economy and enhancing Mr. Bush's tarnished credentials as a leader on domestic policy.

The president promised in a speech yesterday that he will go to Congress at the end of next month "with a new action program" on the economy to be unveiled in his State of the Union address. But many of his supporters argue that six weeks is too long to wait and that he should begin making his case sooner.

Mr. Sununu is scheduled to retain the title of chief of staff until Dec. 15 and then to move into what White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called a "non-operational role" as counselor to the president through March 1. In that job, he will continue to draw the same $125,100 annual salary he earns as chief of staff.

Although the president and Mr. Sununu exchanged warm letters Tuesday to formalize the latter's resignation, the announcement came after a no-holds-barred fight for survival that was said to have made Mr. Bush furious.

Mr. Sununu had survived various controversies for months, but his fate was said to have been sealed when he blamed his boss for ad-libbing an appeal for lower credit card interest rates that sent Congress scurrying to respond with legislation and sent the stock market tumbling.

The president's eldest son, George W. Bush, advised Mr. Sununu a few days later that he had become a liability, a message that officials said was intended to be read as a request for his graceful departure.

Instead, Mr. Sununu tried to get congressional leaders and other Republican officials to argue his case with the president.

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