Skinner brings new openness to White House operation on eve of election year Change indicated in Bush performance

December 22, 1991|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When Samuel K. Skinner arrived in the Roosevelt Room at 7:30 last Monday morning to chair his first meeting as White House chief of staff, he surprised the nearly two dozen senior Bush aides present by taking a seat along one side of the large, rectangular table.

It was a small, subtle gesture, but one that underscored Mr. Skinner's determination to distinguish himself from his deposed predecessor. John H. Sununu had always presided imperially over the daily staff sessions from the head of the table.

"Now nobody wants to sit at head of the table for fear of looking presumptuous," a White House staffer said.

The new White House watchwords -- which Mr. Skinner repeated again and again last week in morning, afternoon and unusual evening sessions with his new colleagues -- are collegiality, openness, teamwork and access.

His promise is of broader advice to the president, a more activist approach on domestic issues, and better communication of the administration's accomplishments as Mr. Bush heads into a re-election campaign threatened by the trauma of recession.

"People are polishing up and dusting off old [suggestion] memos" that were treated as dead letters in the increasingly insular Sununu regime, said another White House official, who described the staff mood as cautiously optimistic.

It's too soon to say how much will come of it, though.

"The only real change here so far is apprehension," offered one staffer."It's like being on your first date. You're not quite sure how it's going to work out."

Some policy shifts are expected with the arrival of a less ideological, more open chief of staff.

On Mr. Skinner's second day in office, for example, the White House officially abandoned its attempt to jawbone the country out of recession.

But long-time Sununu opponents, who battled him on such issues as abortion and global warming -- are not counting on his successor to spark major conversions. They figure Mr. Bush has always been calling the shots.

"This administration's abysmal record on the environment cannot blamed on John Sununu," Dan Becker of the Sierra Club said.

So far, the Skinner regime has produced a more-coordinated-than-usual flurry of media events at which Mr. Bush offered greater empathy to the unemployed and sounded more resolute about doing something about the economy.

After acknowledging Tuesday that the country was still in recession, the president flew Wednesday to a road construction site outside Dallas. He signed into law a $151 billion transportation financing bill that he said could be "summed up by three words -- jobs, jobs, jobs."

Mr. Bush met Thursday with the top three U.S. automakers to discuss the 70,000 layoffs announced last week by General Motors Corp. On Friday, the White House topped off its effort to convert Mr. Bush's once-canceled foreign policy trip to the Far East into a trade and jobs mission, by featuring Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher Sr. -- instead of the usual State Department official -- as the chief press briefer on the Dec. 30-Jan. 10 journey.

The president "has spent a vast, vast majority of his time on domestic issues, and that just hasn't got across," Mr. Skinner said Friday during an impromptu session with reporters. "What we are trying to do is . . . let the American people know so they know that he's addressing this problem."

Robert M. Teeter, the newly named mastermind of Mr. Bush's re-election campaign, as well as other aides, had a hand in the theatrics.

But Mr. Skinner, 53, a former Chicago prosecutor who previously served as secretary of transportation, added his own special touch, including a glad-handing tour through a Texas roadside cafe Wednesday.

Work has also been stepped up on the economic stimulus and growth package Mr. Bush has promised to unveil in his State of the Union address.

"He's included a lot of people in discussions of the economic package who were excluded before and who didn't know if there was even going to be an economic package," presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said. "Sam has brought a new enthusiasm to the staff."

Mr. Skinner's promise of a free exchange of ideas comes after nearly two years during which Mr. Sununu was believed by some staffers to have been virtually co-opted by Budget Director Richard G. Darman, another opinionated man who has a practiced grasp of the technical aspects of federal government.

"I think John relied heavily on Dick," said a former Bush aide, "perhaps too much."

Mr. Sununu and Mr. Darman, who always sat opposite him at the other end of that long table in the Roosevelt Room, formed a domestic policy duo that froze out most other staff members.

Only C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel, and Mr. Fitzwater seemed to retain major influence on domestic issues, largely because each has a special relationship with Mr. Bush and reports to him directly.

With Mr. Sununu's resignation two weeks ago, speculation has turned to how soon Mr. Darman might follow.

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