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Out to Make Enemies? Copy Sherman Adams--John Sununu Does : Politics: The White House chief of staff might have too much in common with the man who was Eisenhower's arrogant senior aide.

January 06, 1991|Gregg Easterbrook | Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly

WASHINGTON — Anybody remember Anne Burford? Richard V. Allen? The U.S. position on the Chad-Libya war? Hint: All were headline Washington controversies for extended periods during the last decade. If that seems like the dim past, you're not alone. From political power broker to shrill talk-show pundit, few in Washington recollect the 1980s. As the writer Walter Shapiro observed, Washington is a city of such short attention spans, so obsessed with what's happening this millisecond, that "anyone who can remember the Eisenhower Administration is viewed as grasping the full sweep of human history."

One character from the Eisenhower Administration hardly anyone remembers is Sherman Adams. Adams quit as governor of New Hampshire to move to Washington as Dwight D. Eisenhower's chief of staff. He was conservative, intelligent, hard-working, self-made, sharp as a tack and arrogant: an aloof man few could stand. Adams created bad blood between the White House and Congress, between the White House and the GOP. Eventually he was humiliated by scandal and driven from Washington in disgrace.

Sound a little like the current White House chief of staff, John H. Sununu? Sununu also quit as governor of New Hampshire to come to Washington as a President's chief of staff. Sununu is also conservative, smart, conscientious, self-made and quick-witted. And he is as arrogant: Sununu, like Adams, seems to consider it his birthright to lord it over congressmen and fellow Republicans.

It's odd that the similarities between Sununu and Adams, so striking, seem to have left so little impression on institutional Washington--which often suffers from worse cultural illiteracy than the typical high-school student. But there is a certain well-placed Administration figure who knows the comparison in detail. Who? Sununu himself. Adams, it turns out, is one of Sununu's heroes.

Sununu has been known to compare himself to Adams and to go on about how misunderstood was the late Granite State politician, who insisted on being called The Governor. Sununu, too, likes to be addressed as governor, but, with informality now chic in Washington, doesn't always get his wish. Sununu obtained for himself the same license-plate number that Adams had--at what must have been considerable effort.

Maybe the weird parallels between their lives can explain some of Sununu's fondness for the memory of Adams. (Attention Californians: Adams died after Sununu was born, so there is no past-life possibility.) Another parallel is that each went almost overnight from barely knowing their President to being his closest aide--chiefly because of New Hampshire's peculiar status in U.S. nomination politics.

Adams ran Eisenhower's 1952 New Hampshire presidential nomination campaign and produced an upset win when Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio was the clear front-runner. At the time, there was even a dispute over whether Eisenhower was a Republican. Adams conducted the entire campaign without ever meeting Ike face-to-face. Eisenhower was so impressed that he developed great affection for The Governor, making him his campaign manager and then, in Washington, his closest aide.

Sununu caught George Bush's eye by managing Poppy's solid 1988 New Hampshire primary victory at a time when there was no clear front-runner, but when the Washington pundit class was chortling that Bush had no chance whatsoever against Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas or such ballot-box colossi as Alexander M. Haig Jr. and Pierre DuPont. At the time of the victory, Sununu and Bush also did not know each other closely--but again the candidate's gratitude was deep.

There is another weird parallel here in Bush's frequent statements expressing fondness for Eisenhower. Bush sees much of himself reflected in Ike, politically and personally. There is enough here to form the basis of a Phil Donahue show about political forefather complexes. One hopeful note: If the comparison truly holds--in 1956, Eisenhower kept the United States out of war in the Middle East.

Yet, of all the role models for the embattled Sununu to pick, it is hard to think of one less promising than Adams.

Adams rapidly made himself unpopular in Washington for his high-handed attitude toward Congress. He considered members gnats on the windshields of Great Men like himself. Adams was brusque in his dealings with Hill leaders, issuing orders and asserting if they didn't like it, they would incur the President's wrath. In 1954, a Senate subcommittee condemned Adams for "contempt of Congress and its constitutional powers" for a case where Adams was channeling non-security-related Atomic Energy Commission business to favored contractors, then invoking executive privilege to refuse to testify about it.

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