WASHINGTON -- "Major-league disarray" is how one senior administration official sums up the turmoil within the Bush White House.
Despite overall public approval for President Bush's job performance, there is a growing sense inside the White House that the administration is in "free fall" these days, as this aide put it.
A string of embarrassments prompted some Republicans last week to compare the situation at the White House to the worst days of the Carter administration. These events included:
* The decision by an assistant secretary of education to put the administration on record in opposition to college scholarships based on race. That controversial decree apparently was issued without consulting Mr. Bush or his top aides, who belatedly ordered a review.
* Former "drug czar" William J. Bennett's reversal of his earlier acceptance of Mr. Bush's offer to become chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mr. Bennett said he changed his mind because senior White House aides had misinformed him about possible legal restrictions on his ability to earn outside income in the party job.
* An effort by White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu to block the reappointment of Robert L. Clarke as comptroller of the currency. Although Mr. Clarke, a tough regulator, was reappointed, bankers said the Sununu move raised serious questions about the administration's commitment to strong regulation at a time of increasing worry over a national bank crisis.
* The undignified firing of Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos, the nation's first Hispanic Cabinet member. Summoned to the White House by Mr. Sununu and ordered to quit by month's end, Mr. Cavazos resigned immediately; his letter of resignation pointedly omitted the usual thanks to Mr. Bush for having been allowed to serve the nation.
These events, which took place against a backdrop of continued internal bickering among presidential assistants over the course of administration policy and political strategy, have deepened the "bunker mentality" at the White House, according to Bush aides and party leaders.
"There's nobody you can get on the phone [at the White House] who isn't taking Seconal. They're all demoralized," a Republican official said Friday. "We look like a banana republic."
Mitchell E. Daniels, a former aide to President Ronald Reagan who spent part of last week at the White House, said he found "a lot" of fighting among his friends and former colleagues.
Mr. Bush himself, said to be absorbed almost completely by the Persian Gulf crisis, was described by aides as "dispirited and disappointed" over the handling of the Bennett and minority-scholarship decisions.
At least one longtime Bush aide dismissed the setbacks as an unfortunate confluence of events and predicted that the latest round of criticism would quickly fade. Others weren't as certain.
Republican politicians pointed out, and polls have confirmed, that the gulf crisis was largely responsible for helping to keep Mr. Bush's popularity high.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that a majority of Americans support Mr. Bush's handling of events in the Middle East, although approval of his performance on foreign policy has sunk to the lowest level of his presidency.
But on the home front, most Americans see the country headed in the wrong direction, and a majority disapproves of Mr. Bush's handling of the economy, the poll found.
"George Bush is so absorbed in the gulf right now that he has really almost abdicated in other areas," said a well-placed Republican observer who supports the president. "Politically speaking, I think this administration is in critical trouble. If the economy comes out OK, fine. But I think there's a definite lack of credibility from a standpoint of does he really have a grip on things."
Many blame Mr. Sununu, the White House chief of staff andformer New Hampshire governor whose imperious style continues to antagonize many fellow Republicans, particularly senators and congressmen alienated by his actions during last summer's budget negotiations.
"He's made it harder for himself to be effective, and a lot of these feelings, both within the administration and outside it, run deep," said Mr. Daniels, who calls himself a Sununu fan. "The lack of trust and animosity has not been overreported."
Mr. Sununu almost defiantly shrugs off the criticism. In a National Press Club speech last week, derisively termed his "state of the union" address by critics, Mr. Sununu insisted that reports of his rampaging conflicts with members of Congress and others were "fiction, not fact."
"Contrary to the legend, any strong statements on my part are both controlled, deliberate and designed to achieve an effect," he said. "There is no random outburst. It all is designed for a purpose. And I think the efficiency of the result is underscored by what we've been able to achieve."
However, policy disagreements and personality disputes featuring Mr. Sununu and other White House aides have become almost daily fare in Washington newspapers.
Just last week, it was reported that Mr. Sununu had been excluded from a meeting of top administration and party officials summoned by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, head of the Republican senatorial campaign committee, to develop a Republican political message for the upcoming election cycle. Mr. Sununu and Mr. Gramm had clashed over the same issue at a private GOP dinner two weeks earlier.
An administration official conceded that Mr. Sununu "wasn't helped" by recent events, particularly Mr. Bennett's decision to back out of the party chairmanship Mr. Sununu had persuaded him to accept.
One administration official said Mr. Bush might finally heed the advice of old friends and political allies who have been urging him for months to dismiss Mr. Sununu.
But others point out that Mr. Sununu is simply performing the role that Mr. Bush created for him.
"Somebody's got to be the bad guy," a White House aide said. "If you're George Bush's chief of staff, you're going to have those phone calls."
The aide noted that Craig Fuller, chief of staff to then-Vice President Bush, was similarly the target of complaints by longtime Bush supporters who felt insulted or ignored.
Mr. Bush let Mr. Fuller go "when he finally decided [Mr.] Fuller was not what he needed," recalled a source, predicting that Mr. Sununu would suffer a similar fate -- but probably not until the president begins turning his attention to his re-election, late next year or early in 1992.
A prominent Republican sometimes called on by Mr. Bush for advice agreed that the mood around the White House is bleak this holiday season.
"People are down," he said. "They've had some setbacks. But I don't think they're anywhere near as down as they were in October, a few days before the election," when it appeared that Republican candidates would suffer heavy losses.
"Now they've had the wind taken out of their sails, and they feel like they're starting from scratch," he said.