JOHN SUNUNU'S public ordeal as White House chief of staff has centered on his use of corporate jets and the president's limousine for his personal getting about. Sununu reportedly thinks a vendetta - by the media, liberals, Republican moderates vying for control of the president's 1992 campaign, and a pro-Israeli faction that objects to his "evenhanded" Middle East views - is fueling the controversy. Smart and abrasive, he has not cultivated endearment or allies.The president is "perturbed" over Sununu's actions and excuses but is "loyal" to him. Sununu is "on probabation." Or so it is reported. The president and his chief of staff must work this out. This is awkward, because a chief of staff himself serves as a president's bad-news giver. He is the "woodshed" a president is said to take wayward staffers out to. The central themes here are loyalty and trust. Mr. Sununu, the former governor of New Hampshire, delivered that crucial state for Mr. Bush's 1988 campaign after a shaky start in Iowa. A campaign stalwart (James Baker III for Ronald Reagan) is often given the chief-of-staff job. With it c omes the expectation that the appointee will pursue the president's political interests and get him reelected. By these standards, Sununu is fairly Bush's man. Bush owed him one. Sununu will have to decide whether he remains a sufficient asset for Bush's reelection. Bush is being watched by the public too: On the spectrum of his own character, where does the president's loyalty dissolve into expediency? Loyalty should be mutual, though too often one side quits. But as Shakespeare said of love - it is not love if it bends with the remover to remove - so with loyalty: Loyalty implies staying with a friend, associate, subordinate or superior, through some test. Loyalty absent a test may be only friendship. Betrayal is an alternative to loyalty. This is a difficult subject, because betrayal may also be perceived as an alternative loyalty. Other alternatives are indifference and neutrality, which are passive; these can either be negative in intention or effect, as in letting someone twist in the wind, or positive, as in giving someone an opportunity to work out of a tough situation. Trust and loyalty are related. If we want to be able to trust others, it is prudent to earn that trust with loyalty ourselves. So-called blind loyalty is vulnerable. Loyalty is more secure when accompanied by truthfulness, intelligence, and especially an awareness that integrity allows no personal exceptions. A capacity for forgiveness is a dimension of loyalty. Forgiveness can reclaim a situation; it can start again the seedlings of trust even after devastation by disappointment, accusation. Justice allows no exemption for loyalty, nor for nonperformance. Publicity itself is no system of justice; it simply repeats what it hears. The loyal are not quick to judge. Those who have been mistakenly, selectively, or ignorantly represented in the press or on the air often learn to appreciate a judicious if unsparing critique; they would prefer to take their lumps in a public discourse where correction is possible and adversaries stand up to be quoted. The White House does not escape the fundamentals of human experience - if anything, it appears to exaggerate them. Citizens easily recognize that there are not two ethics, one for high places and another for the rest of us. In the case at hand: You don't use Dad's car without telling him, or for some stupid purpose. "Political loyalty" is a contradiction in terms; this may be why "interests" are a more trusted currency in Washington. Interests, constituencies, are the underlying, longer lasting, impersonal forces that eventually separate out the apparent "loyalties" paraded for show. Interests last; people come and go. Governments get into trouble when administrations take a "loyalty" track, as in Watergate, that separates from the basic responsibilities and ethics of governing. A more constructive way of framing the Sununu matter is to ask the question: What should be the style, tone, and content of the next Bush administration? And for this, what should be Mr. Sununu's role?