WASHINGTON — WHEN the president appears in the White House press briefing room, his chief of staff is always there, stage right, arms folded, smirking slyly at reporters' questions. John H. Sununu - known here as ``the governor'' - does not suffer fools gladly or often.
Chief of Staff Sununu has developed a clear-cut reputation as a man of vast self-assurance, quick and rigorous intellect with a combative streak.
He has also become a symbolic figure on one key policy front - the environment.
The historic risk of a strong chief of staff is that he begins to isolate the president from different points of view.
This is unlikely in the Bush White House, according to a range of presidential scholars, because President Bush is so personally active in gathering information from his own wide network.
And Mr. Sununu also has an open-door style, caring little to screen people from meetings or from dropping by his office, according to White House staff members.
Perhaps a greater risk with his forceful style, according to scholars and White House aides, is that his brusque lack of diplomacy will create the impression that certain views are not welcome.
That translates into intimidation inside the White House and political outrage outside.
Other strong chiefs of staff, from Eisenhower's Sherman Adams to Nixon's H.R. Haldeman, have been tough operators who deflect some political heat from the presidents for which they work. But rarely have any become closely identified with specific issues as Sununu has on the environment.
In late February, the presidents of eight leading environmentalist organizations wrote Bush complaining of Sununu's intervention in environmental policies. The chief of staff, the letter said, ``is driving a wedge between you and environmentalists.''
On the White House staff, some aides acknowledge Sununu's demands that economic impact be balanced against environmental concerns and his challenges of the scientific basis for global warming predictions.
But they also say he often makes forceful challenges to staff or Cabinet presentations on different sides of many subjects - challenges that can be misread as ideological bias.
One administration official notes, for example, that he has heard Sununu speak sharply to business representatives and Republican congressmen as well as on environmental proposals. ``You don't go to any meeting with the governor unprepared. You don't shoot from the hip,'' says another administration official of Sununu's exacting standards of analysis. ``It doesn't mean he's pedantic. He's intellectually rigorous.''
A couple of White House officials acknowledged that some are probably intimidated in meetings run by Sununu because they are ``afraid to say the wrong thing.''
Sununu's record is mixed on the environment, both as a White House aide and in his six years as governor of New Hampshire. It is also colored by his background as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained mechanical engineer.
He has a history of taking the acid rain problem seriously and of frustration with federal protection of wetlands. Environmentalists have seen both views reflected in administration policy this year, with Sununu's clear involvement.
Sununu's most publicized move on environmental policy was to tone down remarks on global climate change last month in a speech prepared for President Bush. Speech writers used language in a draft version that Sununu felt was too close to advocating cutbacks in carbon dioxide emissions to combat global warming.
One administration official says he wondered why Sununu would undermine the president's reputation on the environment by underlining its conservatism.
The official says that he realizes now that Sununu is doing what the president wants him to do - balance environmental concerns with their economic costs - while keeping the resulting fracas outside the Oval Office and away from the president.
This view is not lost on environmentalists. ``Sununu has become a target,'' says Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund.
`Yes, [Sununu] has strong views, but they're formed case by case,'' says an administration official. ``I don't think he's ideologically disposed against the environment.''
Sununu's closest ally is White House budget director Richard Darman, another official known for his quick and analytical mind. The two meet every morning at 7:15 a.m. before the White House senior staff meeting. The two plot most administration strategy for getting programs through Congress.
``Sununu's role is not settled yet,'' says G. Calvin Mackenzie, an expert on presidential staffing at Colby College in Maine. ``You have a personality here that is very strong and bound to surface in policy, especially in technical areas.''