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The Perils of Washington: Sununu's On-Job Training

February 19, 1989|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, was special assistant to the President for congressional liaison in the Carter Administration

WASHINGTON — When John H. Sununu declared last year that he was just a poor country boy who had a lot to learn in his new position as White House chief of staff, Washington insiders scoffed. They'd heard that line before. Now the former New Hampshire governor is making believers of them.

If there's one thing a new White House chief of staff cannot afford, it is to get off on the wrong foot with Congress--especially a legislature controlled, and likely to remain so, by the opposition party. The evidence is beginning to pile up that this is exactly what he has done.

Item No. 1 -- Sununu's first foot was planted on John G. Tower's neck earlier this month. As Tower's nomination for secretary of defense ran into increasing difficulty, Sununu was there to "help." At a "private political" dinner--which Sununu should know is a contradiction in terms--he complained that congressional Democrats were trying to weaken Tower "with a thousand cuts."

Accusing the opposition of partisanship is fair enough. Unfortunately Sununu might want to be a bit more careful when the news comes out on the same day that his boss gives his first major policy speech before a joint session of Congress. An important theme of the President's address was, natch, bipartisan cooperation. Congress is quite good at cutting more than Tower.

Item No. 2 -- Another "private" comment, this time via the Wall Street Journal. On Feb. 10, the chief of staff "privately accused Nunn of wanting to run the Pentagon himself." Sununu's struggle over Tower's confirmation, with Sam Nunn of Georgia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been going on for a while. Having the FBI brief only the Republicans on the Senate committee infuriated Nunn and led to his expressing "serious concerns" about Tower.

Sununu responded with his "private" comments and the debate has turned into a battle. Not only has Sununu hurt Tower's chances, he has also taken on the chairman of a powerful Senate committee when that chairman will certainly have the last word. Does anyone not believe that Nunn will be chairman longer than Sununu will be chief of staff?

Item No. 3 -- Before the Tower affair, Sununu seemed to think he was still dealing with the New Hampshire Legislature. A Washington Times headline at the end of January read: "Sununu chides Congress over 'leaky' briefing."

The fuss was over members of Congress revealing an Administration proposal to put a fee on savings-and-loan deposits. Whatever the merits, or demerits, of the proposal or of the leaking charge, this was hardly the thing to say. Publicly accusing Congress of leaking will only bring resentment, sooner or later.

Sununu has added to his inability to handle Congress with his inability to handle the President. The chief of staff should be the President's shield--a political version of the Secret Service taking the bullets meant for the chief executive. Instead he has allowed George Bush to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong issues.

Bush's protestations, explanations and half-hearted backing for the savings-and-loan deposit fee should not have happened. It was an issue that should never have been allowed near the chief executive.

Bush's warm embrace of Tower, even as the smell of the nominee's roasting flesh filled the hearing room, was too much too late. Overusing the President will only lead to trouble when his leverage is needed.

The New Englander is already taking heat for his White House operation from both the press and Congress. The White House press secretary, trying to do some major damage control in the Tower brouhaha, confessed at a remarkably contrite Feb. 8 press briefing to "incompetence" and "confusion" within the staff in its dealings with Congress over the nomination hearings. Marlin M. Fitzwater seemed to be appeasing Nunn--even at White House expense. For, in an extraordinary litany, the press secretary admitted to three errors.

First, Fitzwater said the staff "mishandled" the situation when it failed to supply files the Senate committee had requested. He then said the White House decision to brief the committee's ranking Republican about the FBI report on Tower--but not to brief Nunn, the committee chairman--was a mistake.

In a final dish of humble pie, Fitzwater said the White House was wrong when it publicly disagreed with Nunn over what exactly had been said at a meeting the senator had with the President. Fitzwater--by admitting to being mislead by Sununu, his source from the meeting--was backing Nunn against the White House boss.

A smooth-running machine on the personnel front is also nowhere evident in the White House operation. Whereas the Reagan Administration eight years ago had more than 100 policy-makers nominated or confirmed by this time, Bush has no officials below Cabinet rank confirmed and only six sent to the Senate.

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