THE White House found itself facing a significant political flap last week when questions arose over the use of Air Force planes by chief of staff John Sununu. Mr. Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor, has made a lot of enemies in his political career. He is said to have an abrasive, confrontational style and to enjoy a good political fight.
As governor, he bested antinuclear activists and the state of Massachusetts in getting the Seabrook nuclear power station built and operational. He had several other running disputes with Bay State Gov. Michael Dukakis (D), as well.
Sununu sided with the Bush campaign in the 1988 New Hampshire Republican primary and helped the then-vice president to victory. The win helped eliminate Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, who was a serious threat to Bush's candidacy, from the race.
When Mr. Dukakis went on to become the Democratic nominee for president, Sununu became even more valuable as a source of information on his gubernatorial colleague. He was rewarded for his help with the chief of staff job.
Sununu's opponents charge that he has moved White House policy on civil rights, the environment, and energy in a conservative direction. On Capitol Hill, Democrats despise his conservatism, while many Republicans feel he has treated them badly. Sometimes this makes the chief of staff a valuable asset to the president; Sununu gets the "blame" for policy decisions instead of Bush.
So there was a good deal of interest in Washington last week when the Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report revealed that Sununu and his family had used military jets for ski vacations and trips to New Hampshire in addition to government business. The White House defended Sununu, asserting that a 1987 policy requires him and the national security adviser to use military aircraft for their own safety and to remain in voice contact with the president.
White House records reveal that Sununu reimbursed the government for four flights he considered personal, and that the Republican Party paid $47,044 for 24 political trips. But the military flights are more expensive than commercial flights would be, and Sununu's 77 trips cost taxpayers an estimated $500,000.
Although the president backed Sununu, he did order White House counsel C. Boyden Gray to review the policy. "I don't like this jumping all over Governor Sununu, when he has complied with the policy and he's made full disclosure. What more can you ask for?" Bush said. "He has my full confidence."
While the revelations were embarrassing to Sununu and the White House, he will probably keep his job. Had there been a clearer ethics violation, past experience indicates that Sununu would have had to go. President Eisenhower's chief assistant, Sherman Adams (also a former New Hampshire governor) resigned under fire in 1958 for accepting gifts from a businessman on whose behalf he had made inquiries with federal agencies. And President Carter in 1977 had to jettison his friend, Bert Lance, director of t h
e Office of Management and Budget, when questions were raised about Lance's banking and business practices.
More than 100 Reagan administration appointees came under an ethics cloud during Reagan's first term, leading to a spate of resignations and several convictions, but the Bush White House up to now has enjoyed a better ethics record.
The cries of impropriety from Congress might have sounded a bit off the mark to some. Congressmen for years have traveled on military aircraft at great expense on overseas junkets thinly veiled as fact-finding missions. A number of missions to "inspect" US bases in the Philippines, for example, spend a lot more time enjoying the social life of Manila than checking equipment or living conditions for US airmen at Clark Air Base. Several senators and congressmen have enjoyed military hospitality on their w a
y to and from the Paris Air Show.
Still, the whole affair puts the White House on notice that the chief of staff is not only unpopular in many circles; he could become an increasingly vulnerable target. But given President Bush's record of standing by those he chooses to serve him, it will probably take much more than this to dislodge Sununu.