WASHINGTON -- When William Bennett announced that he had decided against accepting President Bush's designation to become chairman of the Republican National Committee, speculation immediately centered on whether he had been shot down by John H. Sununu, the White House chief of staff.
It was a predictable line of inquiry. Sununu has been involved in a series of noisy rhubarbs within the administration and the Republican Party over the past few weeks. He has been embroiled in a semi-public battle with House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, and during the budget negotiations had offended personalities as disparate as Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi. Only the day before Bennett stepped aside, the chief of staff had tied a can to Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos.
Bennett insisted there had been no backstage move against him by Sununu or anyone else. He was turning down the party chairmanship, he said, only because his personal financial arrangements risked an appearance of impropriety he was determined to avoid.
On the face of it, the potential conflict-of-interest problem appears to be a thin cover story. Although Bennett apparently had spent much of a large advance on two books he had not yet completed, book publishers have been known to be extraordinarily patient in such cases -- particularly where an influential national figure is involved. Party chairmen don't have to rely on honorariums for speeches to supplement their incomes. And the national committee might well have added $25,000 or so to the $125,000 salary paid the chairman.
But, even if you accept Bennett's account of why he rejected the job, one inevitable inference is that, upon second thought, he decided it was not worth the kind of sacrifices that would have been required. And the question that follows from that is how much of his decision was based on the reality that, although he might hold the RNC chairmanship, the real authority on political matters in this administration rests with Sununu.
And that question leads, in turn, to a more fundamental one: How much power does the chief of staff enjoy? Or, put another way, where is President Bush in all these controversies?
The flip answer to the last question is that Bush is the one standing in the corner with a red face. At the very least, Sununu and his minions handled the Bennett matter so clumsily that the picture of "disarray in the White House" -- to cite the most commonly used cliche -- was reinforced.
But the Bennett fiasco -- Bush had already made a public announcement of the choice -- was only the latest piece of evidence that Sununu has become such an extraordinarily and visibly controversial figure that some Republicans wonder if he is worth the price the president is paying.
No one imagines Sununu experiencing any serious self-doubt. He is as self-assured as he is abrasive and intelligent. And the former governor of New Hampshire clearly enjoys the limelight of the national stage; he seems to station himself at Bush's side every time someone points a camera. He has a finger in every policy pie. When he spoke at the National Press Club the other day on Bush's agenda for 1991, his appearance attracted almost as much press attention as Bush himself might have done.
No one who has followed Bush's career closely expects the president to decide Sununu is not worth the trouble. One of Bush's most respected qualities is his political loyalty. He is not going to forget that when things were at their darkest in the 1988 primaries, it was the governor of New Hampshire who pitched in and probably saved the day by helping Bush defeat Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole in the state's primary.
But the president cannot afford the picture of himself as an uninvolved bystander in fights between the White House and Congress or as uninformed bystander when someone makes a hash of things as Sununu and his staff did in the Bennett case.
The chairmanship of the Republican National Committee is intrinsically not a very important job when the party holds the White House. Everyone accepts the premise that the critical decisions about the 1992 campaign will be made by a circle of advisers that may or may not include the party chairman.
It is equally obvious, however, that the picture of the administration being run by some unelected former governor of New Hampshire is not the one George Bush wants to present to the electorate.
Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening
Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The ; Sunday Sun.