The imperial presidency


Washington -- JOHN SUNUNU'S overuse of his prerogative to fly on military airplanes became a flap largely because of his ugly, front-row personality, but its significance runs deeper.

Had he been less unlovable, the whistle would not have been blown by some underling he'd knowingly or unknowingly snubbed -- nor inflated with so much media attention -- but that's miles from the point.

Inner Washington has difficulty dealing with the true nature of this problem because it unconditionally embraces the cause, which is the imperial presidency. Jimmy Carter had that right, and this town never forgave him for it.

You can certainly make a case, if you presume that a president is entitled to the most sumptuous travel man currently can conceive whenever he wishes to be other than where he is, that his chief flunky should be able to order up a Gulfstream to visit his dentist in Boston.

Air Force One is designed as a magic carpet to dazzle Nebuchadnezzar's most opulent dream. A multimillion-dollar project, it has seat belts with the presidential seal embossed upon them. George Bush revels in this kind of thing. He may be the only vice president who actually delighted in the second banana's seal. His staff gave them out as tie-clips, earrings or whatever at every opportunity, automatically assuming the recipient would be thrilled.

Bush sought the presidency for no other purpose. He wanted to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania, weekend at Camp David, be

Numero Uno at state dinners, and fly in a plane that whenever he's aboard is known as Air Force One. Aside from the above, he is without agenda.

Washington understands all this perfectly. It's a town totally absorbed in measuring its distance from the salt shaker. A bank here actually advertised itself as banker to "the most important money in the world" and nobody hiccupped.

Things have not always been thus. Years ago, for reasons having nothing to do with my employment, I was privy (the pun is fortuitous) to some of the planning that went into the first airplane actually designed from the git-go for presidential travel. I remember there was a bit of bother about Mamie Eisenhower's toilet seat, which ended, after considerable consultation, an eggshell blue.

At the time, this struck everyone concerned, with the possible exception of Mamie and Ike, as hilarious. In today's Washington culture, it would seem perfectly natural.

The notion that the head secretary to the president must be in constant "secure" voice contact with him has to be one of the weirder conceits of all time, but there probably was something comparable in the reign of the Bourbon Louies. Most foibles are less than original.

There is something so shockingly absurd about all this as to pinpoint a genuine weakness in today's America, and it has almost nothing to do with the unattractive Sununu, or even the inoffensive Bush. It gets down to what is important, and, on that subject, we seem -- I hope temporarily -- to have lost our way.

With this column, Jim Fain is retiring after more than half a century in the newspaper business.

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