Sununu's travels still don't rate stamp of approval


John Sununu reminds me of a child who, having promised not to sneak into his mother's wallet ever again, sneaks into her change purse instead.

Having been caught and chastised for using military jets for ski trips and visits to his dentist, Sununu, the White House chief of staff, has now switched to White House limousines for his personal travel.

Ann McDaniel and Tom DeFrank of Newsweek revealed that Sununu took a White House limousine for a five-hour trip to New York last Wednesday so he could buy some rare stamps for $5,000 at an auction and take care of other "personal business."

Sununu took the limousine because he knew Boyden Gray, the White House counsel, would never approve a military plane for such a trip.

Sununu apparently believes it is the vehicle, and not the principle, that counts.

After buying his stamps and taking care of his other personal matters, Sununu attended a Republican fund-raiser in New Jersey. Then he sent the limousine and driver back to Washington and flew back free on a corporate jet that he solicited from a company that is actively concerned with changing government policy.

Sununu later defended all his actions by saying they were not only legal but "in the national interest."

And how fortunate for Sununu that the national interest dovetails so neatly with his personal interests.

Does he need to buy some stamps? Get a tooth fixed? Go skiing? Take in a play? Get a decent pastrami sandwich? All he need do is pick up the phone and get luxury transportation delivered to his door.

And it is the taxpayer, not Sununu, who gets taken for a ride Though Sununu has to pay taxes on personal trips, the American taxpayer picks up the bulk of the bill.

At this point, you might be wondering what a chief of staff does to make him so vital to the nation. Basically, he does four things:

1. He is a gatekeeper. He decides who gets to see the president.

2. He oversees hiring in all senior positions. Nobody who wants a top-level government job can get it without Sununu's approval.

3. He oversees domestic (and some foreign) policy, reviewing it especially for its political and ideological implications.

4. He concentrates always on how each government action or inaction will contribute to or detract from the re-election of George Bush.

So, yes, Sununu must keep in contact with the White House. Should there be a political crisis or should someone want a nifty job over at Interior, Sununu would need to be consulted.

But in a true national emergency, should the president need to decide whether to send troops to Saudi Arabia, for instance, nobody needs to reach John Sununu in the next hour.

When the gulf war was being planned and conducted, Sununu was not vital to either function, though he got in every picture with the president that he could during that time. (Maureen Dowd of The New York Times has identified Sununu as one of the White House's leading "Velcroids," people who "form a Velcro-like attachment to President Bush" whenever cameras are around.)

Sununu and his friends have three classic defenses for his use of government transportation for personal business:

1. Sununu claims he is alwaysworking and that his "personal" time therefore is really business time. "Number one, my job is a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day job," Sununu said on "This Week With David Brinkley."

But that makes me wonder how many people who work seven days a week, 24 hours a day can take off and go to a stamp auction on a Wednesday.

Is Wednesday an especially slow day at the White House? My sources there say it is not. It is a pretty darn busy day, they say, what with it being in the middle of the week and all.

2. Defenders of Sununu say he is not a man of personal wealth but is forced to live like one in high-powered Washington. And, therefore, he should not be criticized for taking a free trip or two or three.

But how many men of modest means can go to a stamp auction and drop $5,000? It seems to me that if you can afford to indulge in expensive hobbies, you can afford to pay your own way to and from such expensive hobbies.

3. Sununu claims he must stay in constant communication with the White House and therefore must travel in White House or military vehicles. "I have to be able to communicate," he says, "to work on sensitive papers, to coordinate White House activities even while I'm traveling."

But if that is true, why did he send the White House limousine back to Washington and fly home from New York in a corporate jet? And, as Newsweek pointed out, Sununu has a secure cellular phone available to him. If that phone can work on a corporate jet, it can surely work on Amtrak.

One other point about Sununu's need for constant communication: Sununu has a fully briefed, entirely competent deputy named Andrew Card. If Card cannot be called upon to act when Sununu is unavailable, what is the point of having a deputy at all?

The obligatory White House defense of Sununu's latest trip was of the weakest sort imaginable. A story in The Washington Post headlined "Sununu's Trip Lawful, White House Aides Say" contained not the name of a single White House aide. Nobody was willing to go on the record in defending Sununu.

This has meaning. It means: "Yeah, we are forced to defend this lug, but we won't put our names and reputations behind that defense."

What will happen to Sununu now? Little or nothing. The 1992 campaign looms. And George Bush believes John Sununu is essential to his re-election.

Besides, nothing Sununu has done is illegal. It is just arrogant and vulgar. And, in Washington, who'd notice?

In the end, Sununu's behavior is best explained by the late, great speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, who once identified a common political malady.

"Some men grow in office," Rayburn said, "and others just swell."

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