For White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, whose political troubles have been mounting like frequent-flyer points, the so-called Air Sununu scandal had at last come down to earth. But the recent revelation that he took a chauffeured government limousine to New York City to attend a rarestamp auction on June 12, less than five weeks after President George Bush had imposed strict air-travel restrictions on his aide, created what Bush conceded was yet another “appearance of impropriety.” It also provided more material for TV comedians. “George Bush has taken up jogging again,” said Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. “Sununu’s taken his car.” But the Sununu jokes masked serious issues: whether the scandal has undermined his role as the presidential gatekeeper, and whether Bush could afford to stand by his controversial righthand man. Said Stephen Hess, an analyst at Washington’s nonpartisan Brookings Institution: “John Sununu is a political liability.” The patrician Bush hired the tough former New Hampshire governor to play the role of disciplinarian at the White House, allowing the President to preserve his own easygoing image. With his keen intellect and legendary temper, the 52-year-old Sununu has gained a reputation in Washington as a ruthless outsider who has crushed dissent, ridiculed incompetence and deflected political attacks that could wound his boss. His conservative credentials have helped to placate the Republican right wing, and he has kept a tight rein on domestic affairs even as Bush has played the world stage. But both politicians and White House staff have complained of his blunt and often arrogant style. And as the travel scandal unfolded, critics accused Sununu of the ultimate political sin: mixing his own interests with those of the President. Said Norman Omstein, an analyst at Washington’s conservative American Enterprise Institute: “John Sununu thinks of himself as the deputy president, not the chief of staff.” Added Republican consultant Lyn Nofziger: “He has broken the rules of this town by thumbing his nose at Washington.” Last week, some analysts said that Sununu, who is of Lebanese descent, privately believes that Israel’s supporters in the United States are leading the attacks against him. But in a written statement, Sununu denied that assertion, insisting that “I am not blaming anybody
but myself for the flurry of recent events.”
His troubles began in April, with revelations that he had taken 77 flights on military jets in the past two years. The chief of staff claimed that 49 of the flights, which cost taxpayers more than $460,000, were for official business. He said that 24 others were political excursions paid for by sponsoring organizations, and that four were personal trips that he had paid for himself. Sununu defended his liberal use of the military planes, some of which are equipped with secure phones, arguing that he must keep in touch with the White House while travelling. But when he listed as official two flights to Colorado ski resorts that he had taken with his wife, an obviously embarrassed Bush issued new travel guidelines for his top aide. On May 9, the President ordered Sununu to clear in advance all future flights with White House counsel C. Boyden Gray, and he banned the use of military aircraft for most of Sununu’s political and personal travel.
But on June 11, Sununu flew to Chicago for a Republican fund-raising event aboard a corporate jet—raising concerns about conflict of interest. The White House said that he had broken no ethics laws. But Sununu had failed to inform Gray, who approved the flight, that Stuart Bernstein, a Washington businessman with extensive government contracts, had arranged the trip. According to a senior administration official, who declined to be named, Gray was so incensed when he learned of Sununu’s escapade that he shouted: “What am I supposed to do, launch a f—ing grand jury over each trip? I thought I could trust the information I was given. This is the chief of staff, after all, not the Mafia.” The incident led Bush to impose yet more travel restrictions on Sununu on June 21: he must now request transportation for political events through the White House Office of Administration.
Last week, however, the scandal widened with revelations that Sununu had used federal office guards during the past 20 months to drive and escort him on business and personal errands in New Jersey and New York, including his June trip to the stamp auction. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the use of the guards “routine, warranted and authorized.” But in light of Sununu’s earlier travel controversies, the new reports added to his image as a habitual abuser of privilege.
Many congressmen and White House officials privately revelled in the reversal of Sununu’s fortunes. And some cabinet members, including Secretary of State James Baker, have counselled Bush to cut him loose. Said Nof-
ziger: “He has demonstrated both a lack of judgment and a lack of political smarts.” More troubling, he added, is that Sununu “doesn’t see or doesn’t care that he has done something wrong.”
Still, Sununu does have defenders, and not only in the United States. Former Newfoundland premier Brian Peckford said that he was impressed by the New Hampshire politician during annual meetings of New England governors and East Coast premiers. “I think he’s
getting a bum rap,” Peckford told Maclean’s. At the meetings, he said, “I saw Sununu incisively argue back, but didn’t see a supercilious or arrogant side.” Added Peckford, who sent Sununu a congratulatory message after his appointment as chief of staff in 1988: “Of all the people I've met, he stands out as a doer, but still personable. He’s just a first-class guy.” Bush has also expressed support for Sununu, if not so effusively. In the White House Rose Garden last week, the President answered a reporter’s shouted question by saying, “Yeah, I’m going to support him.” In fact, many political analysts openly doubted that the fiercely loyal President would fire the man who was widely credited with delivering the critical New Hampshire vote to Bush in the 1988 Republican primaries. At the very least, they said, he will allow Sununu to stay on until after the 1992 election, barring further damaging revelations. For now, it appeared that the highflying Sununu would maintain an uncharacteristically low profile, grounded, as far as possible, in Washington.
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