Skinner brings own brand of toughness to White House, adding a touch of polish

December 06, 1991|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Samuel Knox Skinner will bring Chicago-bred toughness, but also a practiced talent for conciliation, to the White House when he takes over as chief of staff from the domineering John H. Sununu later this month, friends and associates of both men said yesterday.

Where Mr. Sununu was brash, abusive and intellectually driven, they said, Mr. Skinner will be goal-focused, polished and pragmatic -- very much the corporate manager.

"He'll be good for the White House because he'll know when and how to tell the king he has no clothes," said conservative activist Paul Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative public policy think tank. "Just as important, he'll argue for things if he thinks they're right for the president, even if they're contrary to his own beliefs."

Not all conservatives shared Mr. Weyrich's wholehearted support for the outgoing transportation secre

tary, however. Some said they were concerned that Chief of Staff Skinner would be too much the pragmatist, like Mr. Bush, and would not champion their cause the way his predecessor did.

They said as much to Vice President Dan Quayle when he telephoned around the country this week to gauge conservative feeling toward the probable appointment of his golfing friend.

"Many conservatives probably look at Sam Skinner a little bit skeptically," said the Heritage Foundation president, Edwin J. Feulner. "I mean, the Department of Transportation -- an ideological hotbed it is not."

Despite his reservations, Mr. Feulner conceded that Mr. Skinner was "tough, pragmatic, an effective manager and a very good politician in terms of bringing together people and coalitions."

His skepticism, though, was based largely on Mr. Skinner's close association with former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, a moderate Republican who alienated state conservatives with successive tax increases to finance social services.

Members of the far-right wing of the GOP have noted how Democrats -- both on Capitol Hill and in the Illinois Legislature -- seem genuinely to like Mr. Skinner. What's more, they point out, his wife, Mary, a lawyer for one of the nation's largest law firms, once worked for the Illinois Democratic Party.

Mr. Thompson, though, rejects the notion of Mr. Skinner as a liberal, pointing out that he campaigned for presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964 and has supported numerous other conservative candidates at the state and local level.

After earning a degree in accounting at the University of Illinois, Mr. Skinner served two years in the Army. During an outstanding seven-year stint as a salesman for International Business Machines Inc. in the 1960s, he studied at night at DePaul University law school and graduated in 1966.

He first came to public attention as a tireless anti-corruption lawyer in the early 1970s, earning the nickname "The Hammer." He succeeded Mr. Thompson as U.S. attorney for northern Illinois when his mentor left office to campaign successfully for governor.

Having served in several local political campaigns, it was no surprise when, four years later, Mr. Skinner was introduced to George Bush and was asked to help run the Illinois stage of his first bid for the presidential nomination in 1980. Mr. Skinner did the same again in 1988, helping to carry the state for Mr. Bush.

It earned the lawyer-businessman the transportation portfolio.

Regarded as a skilled manager who can work smoothly with Congress, Mr. Skinner, 53, has been called on before to help Mr. Bush.

He has earned high marks for his handling of several crises since becoming transportation secretary: representing the administration during the Eastern Airlines strike, the national rail strike, the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the San Francisco earthquake. Most recently, he helped win a compromise with Congress on a $151 billion transportation bill.

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