In Chicago, where he served as a federal prosecutor in the 1970s, defence lawyers called him “Sam the Hammer.” But it was another nickname that summed up why President George Bush turned to Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner as his new chief of staff last week. In supervising the cleanup of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska, then rushing to Hurricane Hugo’s assault on the South Carolina coastline and on to San Francisco’s earthquake, Skinner demonstrated his ability to project a reassuring presence in the midst of chaos—a talent that won him the title “Master of Disaster.” On Dec. 15, as he takes over the reins of the White House from John Sununu, who resigned under pressure from Bush, Skinner is stepping into yet another state of emergency—but one that may well prove his most daunting challenge yet. With Bush’s popularity plummeting and his economic advisers acknowledging that the recession will last at least until spring, the 53year-old licensed pilot must plot a new presidential course that will put Bush back into the Oval Office next year.
But even the news conference announcing Skinner’s appointment showed how difficult that path may be. Across the country, radio talk-show hosts reported that the White House
game of musical chairs, intended to project Bush’s new take-charge image in domestic policy, had instead left listeners yawning. As Earl Freudenberg, a Chattanooga, Tenn., program director, put it, “I don’t think people really care. They are worried about their pocketbooks.” And some analysts characterized Bush’s limited efforts to calm the rattled national psyche as yet another misreading of the public mood. Although he finally acknowledged that the economy was “sluggish at best,” Bush persisted in refusing to unveil a new economic program before January. All he offered was to speed up spending of $11 billion in federal programs already on the books, which Colin Campbell, director of the public policy program at Washington’s Georgetown University, called “Band-Aid stuff.”
For months, Bush’s friends had readily blamed the President’s erratic policy course on Sununu, 52, who had managed to alienate even fellow conservatives in Congress with his highhanded and high-flying ways. His fall from grace began last April when The Washington Post revealed that he had commandeered military aircraft for private skiing jaunts—and even a trip to his dentist in Boston. Then, Sununu, who is of Lebanese descent, worsened his troubles by blaming them on “those who
don’t like my call for evenhandedness [in the Middle East], the Jews.”
Still, the brash chief of staff appeared to survive each new blunder, protected by Bush’s patrician sense of loyalty and a three-year-old political debt. In February, 1988, as governor of New Hampshire, Sununu had mobilized his party machine to win Bush his state’s crucial Republican primary. But by this fall, with the country’s stalled economy sending Bush’s poll ratings into a nosedive, even that sense of loyalty ran out. And the White House gatekeeper committed a fatal sin on a TV news show last month: he blamed his boss for “ad-libbing” a demand for lower credit-card interest rates that helped send the stock market plunging 120 points.
Sununu received word that he had worn out his White House welcome from another sometime presidential hatchet man: Bush’s eldest son, George Jr. Last week, finally realizing his isolation, Sununu handed Bush his letter of resignation aboard an Air Force One flight to Florida.
In a further show of action, Bush named the three men who will run his campaign—all of whom had refused to sign on if Sununu was in charge. They are Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, who ran Bush’s 1988 fund-raising; Detroit pollster Robert Teeter, a veteran of Bush’s past two presidential campaigns, who also worked for the Canadian federal Conservative party in the 1970s; and Frederic Malek, who ran the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans. Still, even that announcement provoked controversy: during the 1988 campaign, Malek was forced to step down as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee after revelations that, in 1971, he had counted the number of Jews in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics after President Richard Nixon had expressed suspicions that a “Jewish cabal” was responsible for unfavorable economic indicators.
Those appointments, including Skinner’s, further alienated conservative Republicans, who once saw Sununu as their chief ideological ally. Now, many are threatening to support conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan, expected to announce his presidential candidacy this week. Another rival is David Duke, the ex-Ku Klux Klan leader who lost last month’s Louisiana governor’s race but took 56 per cent of the Republican vote. Said Richard Viguerie, chairman of the United Conservatives of America: “Half of the conservatives I know are so angry they would prefer George Bush to lose in 1992. He is in serious trouble.”
Few, even among the President’s closest confidants, would dispute Viguerie’s conclusion as they look to Skinner to heal the bruised Republican coalition. Already, most express confidence that in doing so, the man Bush called his new “firm right hand” will show better political instincts than Sununu did. After all, when he flew out of Washington for Thanksgiving, Skinner sat in the back row of a US Air commercial flight.
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