Mr. Sununu's Trips

THE US president's chief of staff is a ``right arm'' position if there ever was one. The White House is a team, and the chief of staff must be allowed to operate that team with appropriate secrecy and flexibility. Every day, executive decisions involving US policy and matters of state are made by President Bush's chief of staff John Sununu. And in the midst of the raging demands of a job like Mr. Sununu's, it is doubtless difficult to draw clear lines around what is private and what is public time. One is almost always on the job.

That's why we aren't ready to pick and carp about Mr. Sununu continuing a policy begun in 1987 by then chief of staff Howard Baker to use military jets for private travel. One balks at too much use of ``national security'' as a rationale for executive behavior. But a good case can be made here.

It is also legitimate, however, to ask whether or not Sununu's actions take undue advantage of position. As the reporting on Sununu's 60-plus trips on military jets at a cost of between $1,800 and $5,300 an hour unfolds, one may legitimately wonder whether such flights, financed by taxpayers, have become excessive.

Perhaps not. Yet Sununu is a public servant and is accountable. Moreover, like it or not, his actions set an example, and he must avoid the appearance of impropriety if for no other reason than to protect the White House image. There are enough trips to enough non-official events to raise eyebrows.

In the overall scheme, the issue shouldn't become all-absorbing, as some Democrats hope. Yet Sununu and the White House were mistaken to pooh-pooh it. That reinforces the very unaccountable elitism Democrats assert. Mr. Sununu must, if he hasn't already, make available records of his prorated payments for the flights. Such payments are legally required. The public has a right to know about them.

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