Bush chief of staff Sununu: a Washington `outsider'
Washington — Is he an ideologue? ``I don't think so,'' says John Sununu, soon-to-be White House chief of staff, quickly disclosing his enthusiasm for action.
``I'm perceived as a conservative Republican. But I also like to get things done and by my record in New Hampshire - on the environment, mental health, disabled, handicapped, education - I have showed that there are conservative solutions to ... the social needs that are out there.'' ``Conservatism and compassion mix, and I have demonstrated that,'' he says.
Asked whether after a few weeks on the job, is he now a Washington insider, Mr. Sununu laughs. ``I hope not,'' he remarks, sitting in shirt sleeves in a modest office at Bush transition headquarters.
The Sununu appointment has elicited a fair amount of skepticism in this town. Washington insiders tend to regard ``outsiders'' as unfamiliar with the channels of power and therefore not experienced enough to know the complex, often mysterious ways and byways of government.
Governor Sununu himself points out that people forget he was elected three times, and has a ``sensitivity to the reality of the political system.'' He spent a lot of time in Washington dealing with federal departments, he commented in a brief interview recently, and is now in the process of learning how best to interact with members of Congress and others.
As Washington adopts a wait-and-see attitude, at least one former White House chief of staff, a Democrat, applauds the Sununu appointment.
``The most significant thing Bush has done is to reach outside his own personal group to a man who is a more recent friend,'' says Jack Watson, who was President Jimmy Carter's chief of staff. ``He's sent an important signal that he has reached out for a very intelligent, independent-minded man and that he wants a mix in the chemistry at the White House and a different perspective coming from the outside.''
Sununu will bring an independent point of view and will not be reluctant to express it, Mr. Watson says. He is not a corporate executive in the mold of a Donald Regan, he says, but a ``political executive,'' who will have a very different frame of reference than that of a businessman.
Sununu is careful these days not to preempt his new boss, however. He stresses that what he does will always be at the request of President-elect George Bush.
As the White House appointments are completed and the ground laid for installation of the Bush administration, it appears there will be both continuity and change in how the Bush White House operates.
The innovative system of ``cabinet councils'' set up in the Ronald Reagan White House, for instance, will continue. Their purpose is to assure that the relevant Cabinet officers have a voice in the formulation of policy and that, once the President has taken decisions, they are actually carried out by the Cabinet departments and executive agencies.
In his first term, President Reagan set up more than half a dozen such councils, but only two - one dealing with economic policy and the other with domestic policy - proved effective. In the second term only these two key councils were retained, as they will be under President-elect Bush.
Bush transition officials stress that, despite areas of continuity, the internal organization will have to take account of the President-elect's spontaneous personal style of operating. One minor change, for instance, will be a tighter system to keep track of what are expected to be thousands of phone calls, notes, and jottings by the new President.
``George Bush is well-known for picking up the telephone and exchanging information with members of Congress, Cabinet members, and others,'' says a close Bush aide. ``If that information exchange is to be used properly, we have to have a staff structure that is responsive to that kind of style.''
Organizationally, the Bush White House so far is largely a replica of the present structure. Working quietly at transition headquarters, Governor Sununu has announced most of the senior White House staff, including the eight or nine that carry the title of ``assistant to the President.''
Bush is clearly gathering around him many people who, although they are not household names, are close to him and have White House or other government experience: Andrew Card Jr., deputy to Mr. Sununu; David Bates, Cabinet secretary; James Cicconi, staff secretary; David Demarest, communications director; and Frederick McClure, director of legislative affairs.
Among the most powerful positions and more familiar names are Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser; Michael Boskin, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers; C. Boyden Gray, counsel to the president; and Marlin Fitzwater, who will remain as press secretary.
Over time, the structure is expected to evolve as Bush establishes his own style of leadership and staff requirements. In general, he is expected to be a more involved manager than was President Reagan, and therefore needs knowledgeable and experienced aides, but not the kind of high-powered team which Reagan brought with him from California.
``Bush doesn't have the penchant for getting into the kind of detail Carter did,'' says Roger Porter, a former Reagan White House aide. ``But he'll be much more activist than Reagan, who was enormously passive, though he made the decisions.
Sununu's careful posture of deference notwithstanding, White House watchers say it is inevitable for a chief of staff to become an influential ``doorkeeper'' at the White House and even a weighty voice on policy. One area that especially interests Sununu, for example, is a further devolution of power to the states, a cause he fervently espoused when he was chairman of the National Governors' Association last year.
Nonetheless, given Bush's more assertive style, the new chief of staff is not expected to have as much power as Mr. Regan.
John Sununu, in any case, appears to be enjoying his new post. ``I'm having a ball,'' he says jovially as a reporter departs.